The youngest staff members in my team don’t seem to be proactive or committed to completing tasks – how can I get through to them and explain the importance of doing what I need them to do?


I am not a fan of the popular put-downs of the Millennial generation. You know the standard lines that call them lazy, entitled and wanting a certificate of attendance just for being there.

In my experience (which spans working for around 70 companies in 20 countries a year for the past decade and more), today’s young people are eager, enthusiastic, creative and ambitious. In fact, if anything they’re slightly too ambitious and have unrealistic expectations of how quickly they can advance in the workplace – but that’s an entirely different set of complaints.

Having said that, I do believe that today’s young employees are different. They have been shaped and formed in a different world to us older employees, and they have different expectations and measures of success to us. Understanding this will help bridge the gap between you and them.

There are many issues we could look at, but in this Tuesday Tip I want to focus on just two:

1. They grew up through school and university in an environment that was very structured, and they battle to give their best in workplaces that do not provide this same level of structure. 

I remember the moment I discovered this.My oldest daughter was nearing an important set of examinations in high school but had not yet started to study in earnest. I confronted her about this, and she told me that her teachers had not yet given her the scope.

I had no idea what she was talking about: what is a “scope”?, I asked Amy. She explained that teachers would be quite specific about what needed to be studied and what could be left out. Some teachers went so far as to let students know how much work (and what specific work) was to be done in order to achieve a certain grade.

Initially, I was dismayed, and thought this was a dumbing down of education, until I realised that the teachers were not aiming to test Amy’s memory or retention of facts – they were aiming to examine her sense-making abilities, her integration of learning and her creativity. They, therefore, guided her to learn certain areas of the curriculum and ignore others. It was a good thing and an upgrade in education. But it was more structured, and students were trained to “wait for the scope” before proceeding.

2. They have very good defences against unnecessary information. More than any other young people, they have grown up in a world that is over-filled with stimulus, information and claims on their attention. 

They are masters at filtering out things – the problem is that you and the workplace might be one of the things they are filtering out.

They won’t (possibly even “can’t”) sit through a boring hour-long staff meeting. They won’t (maybe even “can’t”) read a tedious email from beginning to end, and absorb everything you want them to from your management memo. And they certainly don’t take the time to read instructions, manuals or rule books. They prefer training to be on a “just in time” basis rather your current “just in case” approach. And most importantly, they want to know “why”.


If you understand my diagnosis above, then the solutions should be clear:

1. Provide more structure for younger staff members. Many of today’s managers are Gen Xers, who grew up resenting the micro-management of their Baby Boomer bosses, so now they prefer to give their own team members very little oversight and supervision. “Just get on with it” is their motto. 

They love this style and wish their own bosses had taken this approach with them.But it doesn’t work for the Millennials.

They need more structure, more step-by-step instructions, more supervision and more guidance than you did. A mere open-door policy is not enough – you need to give them more information than you think you would need to get the job done. You don’t have to do this every time, and certainly, you can expect them to learn and grow quickly, but don’t underestimate their need for structure.

2. Check in with Millennials more frequently. We don’t want to over-react and start micro-managing them, but if you’ve given them a task or project and helped them to structure it into discrete steps that you’ve helped them to outline, then check in with them after each step. This doesn’t need to be a big review process, but must be a formal checkpoint for them, allowing you to make suggestions and adjustments, and to provide them with small bits of feedback to help them stay on track.

3. Allow them to do things their own way. I remember receiving a letter from my daughters’ school Maths department. They asked us parents please to NOT help our daughters with their Maths homework. Our daughters were learning new techniques, and we were just messing them up trying to apply our old approached.

I remember in particular that I had tried to show my daughters long division, while they were being taught “chunking”. It wasn’t a pretty combination of old and new approaches.The same is true in the workplace. Most older managers are digital immigrants (with some digital dinosaurs still roaming our office corridors), while the Millennials are digital natives. They will have ways of achieving outcomes that we haven’t even considered, and we should give them the space to give it a go.

4. Tell them why. If they know why something must be done, they’ll be a lot more likely to do it, and do it properly. So, tell them why the task must be done (don’t assume it’s obvious). Tell them why they are the ones who must do it (“because I said so” isn’t a good enough reason). Tell them why it must be completed by the deadline you’ve given them (this will help them to understand how their part of the work fits into the whole scheme of things). If you want it done in a particular way, explain why. Yes, this will take a bit more time, and may seem a touch tedious to you, but I promise you it will work and will save you a headache later on.

If you’ve been battling to manage your Millennials, try these four simple tips and wait for the magic to happen. I promise it will.


Wednesday, 11th April

Graeme (author of this tip) is hosting a free, 60-min Webinar tomorrow – that’s Wednesday, 11th April on Managing Millennials.

You can join him live at 3pm Johannesburg (that’s 3pm CET, 2pm London, 9am New York and 9pm Singapore time).

  • Understand the new generation entering your workplace: 
One of the most significant disruptors in almost every industry around the world is the expectations and working culture of our youngest staff members. We’ll explore this generation and how they are disrupting things.
  • Discover a new approach 
There are companies that are waking up to the potential of these young people, and are implementing new approaches in their offices. Join our free 60-minute webinar to discover what they’re doing and why it’s working.

Click here to Reserve your place

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