Motivating The Millennials: Tapping Into The Potential Of The Youngest Generation

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Mar. 8 2013, Published 2:00 a.m. ET

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The millennials, the generation of workers born roughly between 1980 and 2000, are entering the workforce in droves. An estimated 44 million are already working and 46 million more are to become a part of the workforce in the years ahead. This generation will come to dominate the workforce in both number and attitude—and in the process reshape the work experience of all employees.

What is important to this generation and how can employers best tap into the potential they have to offer at work? Given that 75 percent of this generation reports planning to find a new job as the economy improves, it is worth your investment of time and energy to see how best you can attract, motivate, and retain them in your organization today.

Profile of the Millennials

Known by a variety of names (Gen Y, the Nintendo generation, generation next, the net generation, the echo boomers, the trophy generation, and others), members of this cohort are well educated, and they have high aspirations for themselves and their careers and a lofty sense that who they are and what they do matters. They love all things high-tech, have and expect instant connections, and are highly optimistic and socially responsible. The millennials bring some tremendous skills and attributes to the workplace, which can at times be offset by perceived negatives of their generation.


Millennials are techno wizards, not only at complete ease with today’s technology but avid users—more so than any generation to come before them. They are quick learners and very resourceful, quick to look for answers from whomever and wherever those can be found. They are optimistic, hardworking, and highachieving, systematically setting and then achieving goals in rapid sequence.

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While these characteristics can be found in high-achievers of any age or in any generation, they are common elements found in the majority of millennials, not just a select few, and, better yet, these attributes all happen to be ideal characteristics most every employer needs from its employees in order to be competitive today.


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The challenges of working with millennials stem from their tendency to have an inflated opinion of themselves and to be overconfident, especially given their limited work experience. They expect to have meaning and purpose in their jobs from the very first day of work and look to be challenged—some might say entertained—on a constant basis. They want to earn more sooner and have both job status and respect, even before either has been earned. They need and demand instant feedback and praise on an ongoing, daily basis.

Other generations tend to react negatively to these attributes, feeling that millennials are a generation of spoiled youth who need to wake up to the realities of work, where everything does not revolve around them. They need to “pay their dues” and earn the respect of their colleagues and management before they are trusted with greater responsibility. Our experience shows, however, that if managers can look past the limitations and shortcomings of these young people they will have an easier time of tapping into the vast potential this generation has to offer.

Reframing Expectations

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It should be expected that this generation feels very entitled and expects more from an employer. This is a generation that has been raised to believe they are very special; a generation that has been told they can achieve anything. They have big dreams and plans and are in a hurry to achieve them. These are positive attributes, but they need to be channeled—and that’s the job of their managers (like it or not!). We’re not talking about abdicating your role as a manager. Or letting millennials do whatever they want—we’re talking about connecting their values and skill set to the work that you need them to do.

Everybody wants everyone else to be just like them: to value what they value, to act like they act, and to conform to their norms. Just as easy to accept is the notion that we can allow people to be who they are, that is, different from one another, but still keep a clear focus on the performance that is needed to get the work done. As is the case for the perceived differences in this generation’s work ethic, if you give younger employees a reason to get excited, they will and do show an extraordinary work ethic and passion to get the work done—plus have fun in the process.

Keep the focus on the work and not on those things that may not matter anyway, such as dress, informality, working hours, communication preferences, and the like.

In our research, we repeatedly find that the most motivating aspects of work for employees in general—and especially for this generation—are things that don’t cost much money, if any. Taking time to get to know them, asking their opinion, involving them in decisions (especially those that affect them and their work), creating socializing opportunities at work, focusing on learning and development opportunities–these are motivational opportunities that any manager can deploy.

For the 5 motivational tools for tapping into the potential of millennials, download the full PDF: MotivatingMillennials.

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