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How to motivate millennials

Kara Smith, Auckland general manager at Talent International


“Lazy, entitled, with an inflated sense of self.”


Yep, it’s another episode of millennial-bashing. The “kids these days’” complaint that’s more popular than smashed avocado. 


Just this week, Natalie Brennan, the general manager of Muffin Break, sparked controversy with comments about millennials. She labelled them “entitled” and said they don’t have the same work ethic as other generations, because they are not willing to do unpaid work to advance their careers. You mean people want to be compensated for their work?! Madness!


As the leader of a group of highly motivated, hard-working millennials this misconception really bothers me.


For clarity, the term “millennial” is generally agreed as describing those born in the 80s and 90s. According to Statistics New Zealand, and in alignment with Global and APAC reports, millennials are found to be surpassing all other generations as the largest age group in the labour force.


By 2025, millennials will most likely make up 75% of the workforce. So if you’re a manager, it’s time to embrace this highly skilled, aware and effective generation.


Before writing this, I spoke to the millennials in my team, and considered my own experience. Yes, - I’m Kara, and I’m a millennial. And while I am not suggesting all millennials are the same simply because we come from the same generation, I do think there are traits, strengths and weaknesses to be considered when managing and motivating millennials.


Here are my top five tips to understanding and motivating millennials (hint: it takes more than a free muffin!):


  1. Create a strong teamwork culture


Millennials were educated with a focus on teamwork more than any other generation before them, they were often given team tasks to complete from primary school to higher education. It’s a strength many millennials have, and one managers should leverage to get better results.


For any generational workforce, but especially millennials, building friendship and trust within a team is fundamental for its success. A focus on teamwork as part of the company’s culture, will help achieve this. Think team building exercises that are fun and a bit outside the box of day-to-day work. As an example, our Wellington office went on a team fishing day last week, it was an experience very different from work but encouraged all our team members to really get to know each other, and the day created memories and lots of laughter.




  1. Make balance and flexibility a focus


Millennials will prioritise a healthy work-life balance, they have the ability to step back and see their life from a wide lens. They will appreciate management styles that are consultative and allow a degree of self-management. I have found millennials who are given a certain amount of flexibility perform better, especially if their performance is rewarded with off-site benefits such as the ability to work from home occasionally.


If managers can understand that life can happen between 9 – 5 they will see millennials often complete work between 5 – 9. While millennials may not respond best to the constrains of strict work schedules, they are also the workers most likely to pull out their laptop and work on something in the evening, on the train or while getting a coffee before work. Older generations may prioritise structure, processes and fixed work hours; millennials are more focused on the end results.


  1. Inspire them: Their job needs to mean something


The 80s and 90s saw a shift in focus towards social responsibility, more than ever before. As a culture we recognised the importance of giving back to something bigger than ourselves. This was ingrained into millennials from a young age, they were raising money and choosing social causes to support, from early in their development.


Deloitte's seventh annual global millennial survey found millennials overwhelmingly felt business success should be measured beyond financial performance, and businesses should prioritise making a positive impact on society and the environment. The survey also highlighted that millennials are more likely to stay at companies who really invest in creating a divisive and inclusive environment.


Millennials want to know the companies they work for have a vision and purpose, that supports more than just its bottom line, whether it be backing social issues or creating a positive workplace. They will quickly feel disengaged and disappointed if the company they work for is not genuinely committed to a strong social initiative or cause and if the culture is not progressive and supportive.


Our Talent RISE foundation connects rangatahi (young people) experiencing barriers to employment with jobs in the technology sector. It was launched in New Zealand last year, after successfully assisting over 90 young people in finding employment across Australia. It is a big part of the kaupapa (purpose) behind Talent and all our team members are invested in and passionate about RISE.


Tash, one of the millennials in my office, told me that hearing about RISE during the interview process was the main reason she wanted to work for Talent. She said, “It was something that really stood out and all the other companies I was considering didn’t do anything like it.”





  1. Give them feedback and praise, often...


Millennials love feedback. Growing up in a time of online sharing and constant encouragement, to give and receive responses about almost anything has ensured feedback is part of millennials everyday life. Praise is absolutely valued and appreciated, however from my experience, millennials are the most receptive generation when it comes to receiving and understanding constructive feedback.


Many millennials work best when they can develop a plan and ideas around a project and flesh it out with feedback from their manager. They value their time too much, as they should, to put hours into a project if they are on the wrong path. Consider building sessions for brainstorming and feedback with millennials so they can check in and make sure they are on the right track. They respond better to a coach or mentor approach than to a dictator.


  1. It’s not about the money, money, money


Millennials care about many things, including money, but it’s not always highest on their list. They are looking for career progression opportunities, experience, development and learning. They are not as focused on instant gratification as the naysayers might lead you to believe. They are strategic in their career goals, if they feel they are being developed in their workplace they may overlook higher paying job offers elsewhere.


Stef, another Talent millennial told me, “supportive management and growth opportunities” within an organisation were more important to her than money and other benefits.


A recent Gallup survey found millennials are 64% less likely to move to another job if they are engaged. One of the best ways to ensure engagement with millennials is through putting in time and resources to help them develop and learn. It’s also beneficial to discuss their development with them, help them isolate the key areas they want to progress within and work together to plan ways the manager, the company and the millennial can contribute to this development.


Misunderstanding millennials


With all this millennial bashing going around, it might feel easy to jump on the bandwagon.


Every single one of the millennials I spoke to about this topic said they have experienced managers who have made negative assumptions about them because they are millennials;

‘sensitive, not hardworking, entitled and opinionated’ were at the top of a long list of criticism they have received. They felt the door was often closed on them before they had a chance to prove themselves. If you are a manager who buys into this, you might be in a bit of trouble in the years to come, because these millennials are clever, results-oriented and very good at their jobs, they are here to stay/takeover. They have the numbers and they are already having a strong influence on how businesses operate.


Managers need to look at better ways to work with and get the best results from the millennials in their team, failure to adapt to the world of a millennial workforce will be to their detriment.


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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