As a Gen X parent of two Millennials and one Gen Z, I have had a front row seat experiencing how these generations have come of age. Their experience couldn’t be more different from my own, when I grew up in a Boomer-dominated education system. The Millennial generation’s childhood experiences color their preferred leadership and decision-making styles, presenting challenges and opportunities for organizations.
Pods not Rows
As a young parent, I remember walking into my oldest child’s elementary school classroom and being stunned. All the desks were clumped together into groups of five or six. When I was growing up, the desks were all in rows, all separated, and all pointing to the front of the class at the teacher. My classroom was designed for me to learn from the teacher. Not so with Millennials. From the outset of their education, they were expected to work with and learn from one another.
Importantly, Millennials were taught that learning from classmates was as important as learning from the teacher. Millennials were raised to work in teams, and not simply follow the instructions of an authoritative figure. They were given autonomy and flexibility to be creative.
What Millennials learned in Kindergarten continues to influence their behaviors in the workplace. Millennials expect to have more say in decision making. They will question why things are done a certain way and not take anything as a given. They want to ensure that their teammates are included in decision making and will listen carefully to what they say. They want to work together, collaboratively, to solve problems.
The Millennial’s team-based collaborative style has led to the rise of “Flat Organizations.” These organizations have fewer levels of hierarchy in the management structure and more emphasis on teams working together, collaboratively leading themselves. Millennials tend to have higher self-awareness and an understanding of their own strengths and weakness as well as those of others. This understanding informs their team efforts and allows them to share leadership and delegate tasks so that the team benefits from the strengths of all players. Having conversations about collaboration from the time they were young makes it very natural for them to bring collaborative behaviors into the workplace.
Collaborative Leadership and Decision Making
The nine-step collaboration strategy based on the Enneagram that I describe in my book Teamwork 9.0 overlaps with the Millennial style of leadership and decision making. Unsurprisingly, the Millennial generation’s interest in self-knowledge has led to a surge in interest in the Enneagram, a tool used for understanding personal motivations, feelings and behaviors. There are vibrant communities on social media, in particular YouTube and Instagram, centered on the Enneagram.
For example, I was fascinated by a recent book entitled Millenneagram by Hannah Paasch. Paasch has written an Enneagram book for Millennials by a Millennial. She brings the wisdom of this system directly to her generation in a way that is highly tuned for them. If you already know the Enneagram, you can learn a lot about Millennials by reading this book!
The Teamwork 9.0 method assumes that employees will work together to creatively solve problems, precisely the way Millennials expect to work together. Here is a breakdown of the nine steps in terms of how Millennials want to work:
Step 1 – Collectively decide which problem to pursue
Step 2 – Make sure that everyone is included
Step 3 – Listen to everyone’s ideas for how to solve the problem
Step 4 – Pick the ideas that everyone likes
Step 5 – Analyze and validate the ideas that are most likely to work
Step 6 – Build a plan based on everyone’s talents and contributions
Step 7 – Make sure that everyone is comfortable with the plan
Step 8 – Move forward together to solve the problem
Step 9 – Make sure that everyone is happy with the outcome
In Teamwork 9.0, I describe these steps in detail. I also include chapters on shared leadership, leadership growth and contributions, and creativity—topics important to Millennials and how they work together.
Teams derive great joy when working together with autonomy, choosing which problems to tackle and how to tackle them. That joy has been instilled in the Millennial generation and provides the intrinsic motivation for how they work together to solve problems. The top-down command-control approach simply does not work well with this generation. Nor do extrinsic motivation techniques like the dismissive, “we’re paying their salary, so they should do what I say.” Intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic motivation. Successful organizations tap into the Millennial’s intrinsic motivation.
Life is a team sport—we’re better when everyone participates. One of Boomer parent’s gifts to the Millennial generation was setting the expectation that they participate. Making the effort to participate is itself enough for recognition. And though some thought this trend was fodder for mocking humor, the Millennial kids did not. They took it to heart. We trained them to be team players, and now they expect to participate on teams and expect others to do likewise. This expectation can present a challenge for organizations that are structured in a siloed hierarchical fashion. Millennials have learned to vote with their feet. They will seek out organizations that welcome and embrace their collaborative style.
Boomers and Gen X express frustration with how to manage Millennials and how to lead Millennials. They frequently claim that Millennial and Gen Z workers have a sense of entitlement and that they do not appreciate the value of starting at the bottom and working their way up the ladder as their generation did. And with that sentiment, Boomers reveal their misunderstanding. There are no ladders in the minds of Millennials. Instead there are teams, collaboration and networks. They learned how both to listen to others and to share their own thoughts. They DO expect others to listen to them. While Boomers may think Millennial employees on the “low rung of the ladder” are entitled, it’s just because those employees expect to be heard. Boomers can learn much about leadership by understanding how Millennials collaboratively lead themselves.
How are Millennials assuming leadership and decision-making roles in your organization? What’s working well? What’s not?