Millennials, the generation of people who turned 18 in the year 2000 or thereabouts, now make up the largest proportion of the workplace. This is according to well-worn predictions about the demography of working adults in 2020. Clearly everyone is different and without making generalisations, millennials have been shown to behave quite differently to other generations. As coaches and organisational psychologists, it’s important to appreciate how these differences translate in a professional context, in order to get the most from them. If there is one generalisation that is safe to make, it’s ‘millennial ambition’ and their desire to make an impact. Fast.
A survey conducted by Pew Research found millennials as a group to be more diverse, educated and technologically savvy than any other generation. They are often unfairly characterised by distinct stereotypes – idealistic, lacking in attention, self-absorbed, predominantly extrovert, obsessed with self-actualisation and achieving a work life balance. Is there any truth in this? If this generation will be dominating the C-Suite in a few years, what does it mean for HR directors and CEOs investing in executive coaching programmes?
As with all stereotypes, these traits are over-simplified and inaccurate, as shown in the findings of an interesting study conducted by Deloitte. This examined millennial working styles and preferences, plus their professional motivations. Deloitte’s report revealed some noteworthy differences between millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers in their preferred working styles. It showed that 60 per cent of millennials can be characterised by two particular work styles (according to the Business Chemistry framework), which contrast to other generations. Business Chemistry classifies 4 types of people at work: outgoing, risk taking ‘Pioneers’, detail orientated and pragmatic ‘Guardians’, experimental and competitive ‘Drivers’ and empathetic and diplomatic ‘Integrators’. Whilst popular stereotypes would have us believe millennials are predominantly ‘Pioneers’, the research shows they are less about ‘big thinking’ and more likely to identify with the methodical, risk averse ‘Guardian’ and goal-orientated ‘Driver’ groups. Additionally, they identified less strongly with humanistic, Integrator group compared with common assumptions that millennials are all pre-occupied with ‘the greater good’.
The Deloitte study also highlighted what millennials in the workplace want. In keeping with their ‘Guardian’ tendencies, they are methodical, questioning and have a need for clear goals and constant feedback. This is why coaching as a personal development tool is so effective among millennials. Well-structured, goal orientated and favouring practical action over didactic theory, it brings out this group’s reflective tendencies.
10 millennial traits for coaching success
Based on our own experience of coaching millennials, here are ten important characteristics to bear in mind.
- Millennials appreciate regular feedback, are motivated by praise and they like to self-correct. This is because education has taught them to be reflective learners, to be self-aware and then self-correct. Asking them what they notice about their own performance can be more powerful than giving direct feedback.
- They thrive on autonomy, gaining mastery and achieving a strong sense of purpose, part of which can arise from being given an opportunity to share their skills with others. ‘Drive’ author Daniel Pink’s key motivators for millennials – purpose, autonomy and mastery – are particularly important to cultivate early on in a career. When coaching millennials, helping them to understand their purpose and how they can both show and share their mastery, is a key to getting their buy in.
- Consistent with Edgar Schein’s concept of ‘career anchors’ – the consistent drivers and values that shape career decisions – millennials value a broader range of career end goals. These will range from having the desire to lead, pursue entrepreneurship or personal challenges, develop technical expertise or prioritise a certain lifestyle goal. Many will forgo leadership status as an end goal and may instead opt to pursue opportunities as a subject matter expert or career intrapreneur within an organisation.
- Millennials are often regarded as cynical, however experience has shown this cynicism is unfounded. It may instead be a cover for disappointment and the feeling that opportunities are not available to them in the same way they were for previous generations with similar educational attainment. When coaching a ‘cynical millennial’, it is important to explore what unfulfilled hope their cynicism is actually protecting.
- They can be highly stressed and will rely on extracurricular interests, or what may appear to be time wasting, as a coping mechanism and means to manage their stress. Generally, millennials will talk openly about stress or report feelings of anxiety and depression to co-workers. This reflects an enlightened awareness of mental health issues, but it can also can lead to self-diagnosis, which may be less helpful. Coaching will help separate what is a normal response to a challenging situation, e.g. being overwhelmed by an assignment, and what requires a therapeutic intervention.
- They thrive on achieving short-term successes, can be impatient to succeed and seek instant gratification. Although the desire to be successful is a natural human need, for this generation, expectations over time frames have shortened, in part because of communications technology. Getting an instant response to emails or social media posts is then mirrored by the impatience to succeed quickly. Coaching millennials is often about holding up a mirror to highlight what’s required, in order to achieve the success they crave.
- Innovative thinkers, millennials will naturally take a global view. This reflects our globalised culture and the shift in political awareness of millennials from following politics at a national level to their concern about single issues affecting the globe. Regardless of how innovative an individual millennial coachee may be, they will typically consider issues more broadly than previous generations.
- They are highly tech-savvy and continual learners. Clearly millennials are undoubtedly more tech savvy than their parents (probably coaches too) and they can make great reverse mentors for older, more senior colleagues who may reciprocate with other insights. Given that AI is already replacing jobs – a trend set to accelerate in years to come – this appetite for continuous learning and development will become increasingly important. Coaching will become a space where the coachee can be challenged to learn more about themselves and how to work with others.
- They are collaborative and expect to be included in decision-making. This trait is cultivated in the design of many degree programmes, which require students to learn collaboratively in preparation for the workplace. Since millennials have always been encouraged to have a voice, they expect to share it and be heard as an equal. This can be challenging for Gen X or Baby Boomer managers shaped by more hierarchical models of contribution. From a coaching perspective, this desire to be the decision maker is a key contributor to a successful coaching programme, as coachees commit to decisions made by themselves, through having supportive space to think.
- Millennials don’t respond to being ‘taught’. They don’t want ‘advice’ in the traditional sense and prefer to learn through trial and error. Does anyone with intelligence want to be taught or told? As Winston Churchill once said, “I like to learn, but I don’t like to be taught”, so there is nothing new about millennials in this regard. Intelligent people learn to trust their own judgement and will be more motivated by opportunities to use or test their own experience, than by being given ‘wise advice’. Learning by trial and error is at the heart of all development and coaching millennials should move beyond the individual gaining new insights, into a willingness to test them in action.
We are all individuals, but people of similar generations have similar likes, dislikes and motivations. As extensive research shows, there are some subtle intergenerational differences evident in the millennial demographic. Recent social, political, economic and technological influences have shaped their attitudes and development, which become very apparent during coaching and they offer huge developmental potential to organisations seeking the very best from their employees. As coaches, our role is to draw on these insights to create powerful interventions that enable clients to engage and maximise the value of organisational talent across the generations.