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LEADERSHIP LESSONS: Leading Millennials Isn’t Hard, It Just Isn’t Easy
Business leadership expert, Simon Sinek delves into the “Millennial Problem” and explains the causes for the disconnect between them and the current work culture. He outlines a few things that companies can do to bridge the gap.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 9/4/2018

If you don’t want to work with Millennials, you better get over your hang-up because they are now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, and their importance for the future is only going to grow.

According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, Millennials (those ages 21 to 36 in 2017) now make up 35% of the American workforce. As of 2017, there are 56 million Millennials who were working or looking for work compared to 53 million Generation Xers and 41 million Baby Boomers. A number of pallet and lumber company executives have bent my ear about the poor work ethic and the sense of entitlement of Millennials. They suggest that these workers aren’t willing to start at the bottom and work their way up, and they would rather stay at home and play video games than get a job, especially if they can collect a government entitlement check.

Is this a stereotype? You bet it is. Is it grounded in reality? That depends on the person. Some Millennials are very hard working. What certainly does seem to exist is a disconnect between the generations. I recently saw a YouTube video featuring leadership guru and author, Simon Sinek, talking about the challenge of leading Millennials. And I found the discussion fascinating because he covered a number of key points that companies in any industry should consider when hiring and trying to integrate Millennials into their business. You can view the entire video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU

Sinek suggests that there are four critical factors that make it difficult for Millennials to relate to the current work world. These are growing up with ‘failed’ parenting strategies, technology engagement addictions, instant-gratification and short attention spans, and a value system that doesn’t work in today’s work environment.

Sinek makes the point that businesses may not have caused all these societal challenges that have impacted the younger workers. But they certainly are going to have to learn to deal with it and help these employees overcome any obstacles they face. No, you aren’t called to be the nanny for your employees. But you do need to listen to them, engage them personally and release them to take on challenges.

So, what does Sinek mean about failed parenting strategies? He was pointing to the car-seat generation where parents tried to protect children from adversity, told them they were always special and could have anything they want. The kind of leadership that gave away participation trophies in sports for just showing up. Sinek suggested that this kind of guidance creates people who are not ready for the tough, competitive world of business where you aren’t guaranteed anything and your mom can’t help you get a job. Business is about competition and winning, not just showing up and gracing the room with your presence. Sinek didn’t blame Millennials for this perspective. He suggested that they were victims of their upbringing and environment.

The second major hurdle is technology. Sinek outlined how people, especially Millennials, have become addicted to technology, particularly cell phones. When you get a text, a shot of dopamine is released in the brain. This is the same chemical reaction that takes place in alcohol and drug addiction. That explains why so many younger people can get lost and totally distracted by their smartphones. They are jonesing for a dopamine hit when they hear a text alert. Many people have never realized the addictive properties of technology and are unaware of how it affects them.

The third challenge is growing up in an instant gratification society where you can download a movie to your smartphone and don’t need to go to the video store. You can order almost anything and have it delivered to your doorstep in 2-3 days by Amazon. You want to watch a TV show, you can binge the entire season in one night. This has made life move faster, and nobody wants to wait for anything. This attitude even finds it way into the work world. Sinek said, “Everything you want, you can get instantly except job satisfaction and strong relationships. There ain’t no app for that. They are slow, meandering, messy and uncomfortable processes.”

Sinek told the story of meeting young adults who are about ready to quit their job because they claim that they are not making an impact. And then he discovers that they have only been there for eight months. They want impact without climbing the mountain to achieve it. Sinek said, “What this young generation really needs to learn is patience.” He suggested that many older people mistake in this generation a sense for entitlement for what is really impatience because nobody ever told them life was this tough. And they don’t have the coping skills to manage the stress. That may explain why you have workers break down in tears and walk off the job when life gets tough. Millennials need to learn patience and realize that there “dream job” may take some time to achieve. At the same time, employers need to have patience to help bring younger workers along and to harness their passion and energy.

The final challenge Sinek identified was the value system of the work environment compared to what the Millennials were raised with in their homes. Sinek said, “It is the lack of good leadership in our world today that makes them feel the way that they do.”

Like it or not, Sinek stated that companies have to fill in the gaps that colleges and families have not adequately addressed. This means that companies need to help build employees’ confidence the right way by providing constructive feedback and rewarding real progress. Companies need to show concern for the individual while calling them to a higher standard. And employers may have to teach coping, stress management, life skills and even social skills to handle old fashioned conversations and workplace dynamics. You can’t always hide behind cell phones and emails.

One idea that Sinek offered was to ban cell phones from conference rooms. The idea is that cell phones can become distractions during the meetings, and they also can be an escape to keep co-workers from engaging in basic chit-chat before and after meetings. Sinek said, “You have to create mechanisms to allow those little innocuous interactions to happen.” He suggests that phones can so mesmerize us that we don’t have time to daydream and come up with the next big creative idea. 

Sinek commented that employers should have empathy and seek to understand the employees. Companies should develop clear pathways that entry-level workers can follow for advancement. At the same time, younger workers need to realize that patience is necessary for success.  

Sinek added that the best companies teach communication skills like listening, conflict resolution, collaborative problem solving. These firms go beyond just job skills or basic task training. The best companies help raise up leaders and empower them to do normal jobs in extraordinary ways. Do you have any leadership training or basic problem-solving training at your company? How can you improve your outreach to employees to help them better understand your company and its importance in the supply chain? How can you institute new onboarding processes to better understand Millennials and their work goals? Chances are they want more than free food, ping pong tables in the break room and bean bag chairs in the office. They want to know that their job is worth doing. And it is your job to help them learn the value in even the most mundane task. 

Editor’s Note: Simon Sinek is an author and speaker on leadership. He wrote Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t and Together Is Better: A Little Book of Inspiration. For more information, visit https://startwithwhy.com/.


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