Leadership and Millennials: How to Overcome Perceptions

Generational Leadership

Were you were born between 1980 and 2000 and are or aspire to be in a senior management position?

Do you have a boss who is younger than you from this generation?

I’m always fascinated by the research that shows how various generations act and react. Sure, the research often results in generalizations. Some of us may resist or see the exceptions. Still, there’s no denying that there is truth in the research that may help you become a better leader. Perceptions about each generation shape how we manage and lead.

Chip Espinoza is a noted expert on generational dynamics and especially the Millennial generation. How to manage them is often a subject, but increasingly it will shift to how this generation will lead and manage others.



Chip’s latest book, Millennials Who Manage: How to Overcome Workplace Perceptions and Become a Great Leader, co-authored by Joel Schwarzbart, is one of the first to cover the subject. I found it a fascinating read, backed by extensive research, that helps everyone better understand workplace generational dynamics.

I recently spoke with Chip about his research and his work with Millennials.




Characteristics of Millennials

What are some of the characteristics of Millennials?

Ambiguity is their kryptonite. If you want to freak a Millennial out, be ambiguous. Millennials believe everything is negotiable, and they expect authority figures to be friendly, helpful, and their advocate.

Career development is their love language, and they expect to have a voice in the organizations they work for—from day one. They also tend to confuse quantity with quality. For example, in college, if there is a 10-12 page paper assigned, if they write 12 pages, they often will think it warrants an A.

It is important to understand that intrinsic values drive behavior. Millennials have some very admirable values when it comes to work, but their behaviors are often misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Here are some intrinsic values of Millennials and how managers characterize them:

Intrinsic Value: Work-life fusion | Managerial Perception: Autonomous

Millennials express a desire to do what they want when they want, have the schedule they want, and not worry about someone micromanaging them. They don’t feel they should have to conform to office processes as long as they complete their work.

Intrinsic Value: Reward | Managerial Perception: Entitled

Millennials express that they deserve to be recognized and rewarded. They want to move up the ladder quickly but not always on management’s terms. They want a guarantee for their performance, not just the opportunity to perform.

Intrinsic Value: Self-expression | Managerial Perception: Imaginative

Millennials are recognized for having a great imagination and can offer a fresh perspective and unique insight into a myriad of situations. Their imagination can distract them from participating in an ordered or mechanistic process or from focusing on solutions that are viable under organizational constraints like timelines and budgets.

Intrinsic Value: Attention | Managerial Perception: Self-absorbed

Millennials are perceived as primarily concerned with how they are treated rather than how they treat others. Tasks are seen as a means to their ends. Millennials are often preoccupied with their own personal need for trust, encouragement, and praise.

Intrinsic Value: Achievement | Managerial Perception: Defensive

Millennials often experience anger, guardedness, offense, and resentment, and they shift responsibility in response to critique and evaluation. They want to be told when they are doing well, but they are not used to being told when they are doing poorly.

Intrinsic Value: Informality | Managerial Perception: Abrasive

Perhaps due to technology, Millennial communication style can be experienced as curt. They are perceived as inattentive to social courtesies like knowing when to say thank you and please. Whether intentional or not, their behavior is interpreted as disrespectful or usurping authority.

Intrinsic Value: Simplicity | Managerial Perception: Myopic

Millennials struggle with cause-and-effect relationships. The struggle is perceived as a narrow-sightedness guided by internal interests, without an understanding of how others and the organization are impacted.

Intrinsic Value: Multitasking | Managerial Perception: Unfocused

Millennials, as a cohort, are recognized for their intellectual ability but are often perceived to struggle with a lack of attention to detail. They have a hard time staying focused on tasks for which they have no interest.

Intrinsic Value: Meaning | Managerial Perception: Indifferent

Millennials find little energy in doing things they don’t consider to be meaningful. As a result, they are perceived as careless, apathetic, or lacking commitment.



Unfair Stereotypes

What unfair stereotypes are made based on these attributes?

If I were to narrow the perception or stereotype list to the most unfair, it is definitely entitled. Yes, Millennials want to be rewarded but so does everyone else. They are willing to work, and it is a misnomer to think they expect something for doing nothing. I have heard them referred to as a generation of narcissists—which leads to the next unfair stereotype—self-absorbed. Let’s face it it, prior to going to work, every authority in a Millennials’ life is there to help them succeed. They expect people to do nice things for them and help them achieve their goals because that is their understanding of the world prior to life at work. The workplace may be the first place they encounter an authority figure who is not for them. Consequently, they experience culture shock. Another unfair stereotype is disloyal. Yes, Millennials will uproot and leave if they believe they are being treated unfairly, underutilized, or ignored. They are very loyal in situations where the manager or organization is committed to their professional development. They come into the workplace with high expectations about their own contribution and what their organizations will do for them.



Many of the perceptions managers have of Millennials are fair. My work has been focused on moving away from conversations about Millennials to discussions with Millennials. Often, Millennials suffer from negative stereotypes simply because they look young. The way they are perceived (whether fair or not) by other generations creates a reality. I think it is important for managers to understand the intrinsic values that drive Millennial behavior to better interpret their actions. I also think it is valuable for Millennials to understand how they are perceived so they can avoid being misperceived. I have had countless Millennials tell me I demystified their work experience by letting them know how their generation is perceived in the workplace. I am always in awe of how receptive Millennials are to feedback and understanding how other generations perceive them. They value the attention and are often amused as a result.

On the flip side, what are some of the qualities that make Millennials strong leaders?

Here is what the older workers who work for them say about their strengths.

  • They are relatable.
  • They have a fresh perspective.
  • They are open-minded.
  • They have energy and enthusiasm.
  • They understand new technologies.
  • They are helpful.
  • They are understanding.

I would add that they have grown up believing in concepts like team, emotional intelligence, diversity, social responsibility, etc.


You spoke at a corporate event in front of a group of Millennials and shared how managers perceive the generation. What did you share?

I have to admit that the first time I did an onboarding event I was worried about how Millennials would react. A very talented and forward-thinking talent development manager called me and told me he had read my previous book, Managing the Millennials, and wanted me to speak to a large group in Chicago. I asked him if the group was made up of managers, and he told me they were all college new hires. He thought they needed to hear about what managers thought about them, and they would love it. I was not sure about the “love it” part, but he ended up being right. His company has one of the lowest Millennial voluntary attrition rates in their industry. I am up there saying, “You are perceived to be entitled, self-absorbed, defensive, abrasive, etc.” Yikes. I told them the truth, and they appreciated it. Hearing the perceptions that others have of them explains what they are feeling in the workplace. It is worth mentioning again: I am always amazed at their willingness to listen to and embrace what I am saying.


Millennial Managers Take Note:

Let’s say you are coaching a Millennial who has just become a manager. What advice do you give?

Be prepared for a redefinition of the relationship with your peers. That is probably the most painful experience when transitioning to management. Peers see you in a different light. It will not last forever.Millennials Who Manage

Be prepared to disappoint the person that promoted you. It is inevitable. You have to find your own management voice.

It is not our enemies who hold us back, it is the people who love us the most. Be prepared for being told things like, “You are a brown nose,” “You have changed,” or “You are not ready for the next level.”

Older workers know you are hell-bent on being successful. Don’t let them make you over-function. Over-functioning can make you feel good that you are picking up the slack and helping others, but at the end of the day—if you are doing someone else’s job—you are not doing your own.

Focus on mastering your current job before you set your eyes on the next level. Seriously, a consistent complaint from employees of Millennials is that they are focused on the next level at the expense of excelling in their current position.

Find your own managerial-leader perspective. If you don’t, you will not be perceived as authentic. Inauthenticity is the kiss of death for today’s leaders.



How about the Millennial who understands the perceptions and wants to advance: what skills should he or she develop?

My first response would be, build on your strengths.

Then work on showing gratitude and appreciation, in order to overcome being perceived as entitled. Next, learn patience. I think it is Millennials’ biggest barrier to the next level. Make sure your strengths are aligned with organizational objectives, and be sure you master “their” way before you espouse your way.


Would you share your insight on self-giving and self-protecting?

Self-giving is about concern for the other. Self-protecting is about concern for one’s self. There are appropriate times to self-protect but, it should never be the norm. Self-giving leaders are concerned with the advancement, emotional state, and overall development of their followers. They have no problem apologizing or giving credit to someone else. Self-protecting leaders are primarily concerned with protecting their image, self-preservation, and putting their needs over that of their followers or organization. They project rather than apologize; they undermine rather than promote, and they exhaust the resources of the organization.


A Positive Culture for All

What tips do you have to ensure a positive culture that appeals to all generations? What is important for each one?

Looking at the data from all of my studies, there is a definite theme of what everybody wants from their work environment.

They want to be listened to. Voice is important. It is key to engagement. If your ideas or thoughts are readily dismissed, it leads to disengagement.

They want to be valued. People need to be acknowledged for their contribution. Recognition is a huge motivator for sustained positive behavior. But it so under utilized by organizations and managers.

They want to be rewarded. Not unlike being recognized verbally, being rewarded tangibly is important. The key is to identify what each person considers a reward. A gold watch means nothing to a Millennial, but it is significant to a Boomer.

They want to be respected. Respect has a lot to do with expectations. In addition, it is about understanding one’s preparedness, experience, and contribution.

They want to be treated in a friendly manner. It is interesting that all generations value someone who they can relate to. It is not about shared experience, but caring. Does the person you work for care about you and what you care about?

They want some autonomy in the way they do their job. There are three components to being a purposeful person: 1) a compelling vision to pursue, 2) personal freedom in how you go about your job, and 3) a sense of urgency. The freedom to do your job the way you feel best aligns with organizational goals is important.

They want their organizations to care about them. I wish this point was self-explanatory. Although needs among the generations differ, organizations that wish to be successful will figure out how to care for employees of all ages. It is not rocket science—just ask employees what caring for them looks like. For some reason, organizations confuse results with caring for employees.

Chip Espinoza, PhDThere are tons of examples of companies who get what their employees want. When it comes to autonomy, I am fascinated by Best Buy’s Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) initiative. They decided to remove time clocks from their corporate office and allow employees to come and go as they pleased. They gave 100% autonomy and expected 100% accountability. Patagonia rewards employee loyalty with an Environmental Internship Program. Employees from all parts of the company are allowed up to two months away from their regular roles to work for the environmental group of their choice while continuing to earn their paycheck and benefits. Ironically, Patagonia has lost some employees to nonprofits as a result of the program, but they see it as part of their environmental mission. I believe Millennial managers will continue to move the needle in the right direction with respect to innovative ideas for bettering the workplace.



Millennials Who Manage: How to Overcome Workplace Perceptions and Become a Great Leader

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