by Dr. Scott Kerth, Assistant Professor in the Organizational Leadership program at Lewis University

Generation X, also known as millennials, are defined as the group of individuals born between 1980 and 2000 and are the largest group of employees in the workforce. Now organizations are trying to understand the best methods for managing millennials and the leadership skills they possess. Millennials have already started leading organizations considered to be some of the best places to gain management experience including: Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Dropbox, Airbnb, Tumblr and Snapchat. 1, 3, 9, 12

The Millennial Mindset

Millennials were raised in the founding era of positive psychology with rewards for participation rather than the prevailing mindset of “the winner takes all”. Access to advanced technology, having a diverse workforce and ensuring an adequate work/life balance are the basic necessities for millennials when considering where they might apply for a job. Anti-bullying campaigns, legalization of same-sex marriage, medical/recreational marijuana and gender-neutral bathrooms, all garnered significant headlines and media attention during the millennial’s formative years in as much these are considered normal conversation topics or even common lifestyle choices.2, 5, 7

Workplace Values and Expectations

Millennials value collaborative workplaces that are open to not only diversity of thought but diversity within the types of employees hired. They are open to and welcoming of feedback, coaching and mentoring that are viewed as contributing to skill development as opposed to management oversight or meddling. They value and expect a much higher degree of information sharing and transparency having grown up with instant access to information via the Internet. The positive reinforcement and collaborative experience through group work throughout their education along with the social connectedness of social media makes millennials highly collaborative but also more autonomous with the idea that they can work from home while still being involved in the social fabric of the office. 2, 4, 7, 8, 10

Others have said millennials are more introspective and self-confident, they are less focused on material success then they are interested in making a difference and contributing. Millennials value what they contribute over how long they work and are not wed to any one job or organization, having little interest or belief in employer-employee loyalty. The loyalty is to the immediate work experience, coworkers and the project as opposed to the company. One might say the Power-Distance gap for millennials is shrinking with less formality between new employees and upper management and a greater expectation to be consulted and involved in decision-making. This goes along with the expectation of transparency, access to data and a strong sense of self. 3, 11, 13

Managing Millennials in the Workplace

Given this personal make-up, it is logical to ask what type of leader can manage Millennials in the workplace and what types of leadership characteristics are millennials likely to value?   

Two leadership styles that we embrace in the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program at Lewis University are particularly well matched to the millennial workforce. Positive Leadership and Transformational Leadership are leadership styles that promote a values-driven leadership approach and contain many of the traits or characteristics used to describe millennials. 

  • Positive Leadership

Positive leadership focuses on building upon the optimism as opposed to trying to fix the negative. Positive leaders demonstrate their beliefs by living their values and supporting organizational and individual strengths rather than correcting weaknesses.6

Positive leadership builds upon the ideas of self-actualization and human potential looking to overcome adversity by acting and thinking in ways that call upon utilizing what individuals and organizations do well. This type of management style parallels with the positive psychology millennials embrace.6

  • Transformational Leadership

Transformational leaders build upon the idea that followers must be intellectually motivated to connect and engage with the organization. This style of leadership style also looks to empower employees to solve workplace problems themselves without micromanagement.6

Transformational leaders encourage creativity and independence among employees. They believe coworkers should respect and recognize each other’s unique characteristics and understand how individual differences can actually strengthen the team as a whole. Millennials tend to prefer practical over elitist type of relationships as the strong emotional bonds developed by transformational leaders further connect their idea of erasing the formality in many hierarchical relationships.  

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For purposes of this article, the author’s original in-text, APA citation was reformatted.
1Deloitte. (2016). The 2016 Deloitte millennial survey: Winning over the next generation of leaders. UK.
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3 Hesselbein, F. (2015). The impact, the influence, the contribution of millennials. Leader To Leader, 2015(77), 5-6. doi:10.1002/ltl.20184
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10 Rodriguez, A., Rodriguez, Y.  (2015). Metaphors for today’s leadership: VUCA world, millennial and “cloud leaders”. Journal of Management Development (JMD), 34(7), pp. 854-866.
11 Shapero, M. A. (2013). Managing china's millennials: Considerations for multinationals. International Journal of Business and Public Administration (IJBPA), 10(1), 23.
12 Zemke, R., Raines, C., Filipczak, B., NetLibrary, I., & Books24x7, I. (1999;2000;). Generations at work: Managing the clash of veterans, boomers, xers, and nexters in your workplace (First ed.). New York: AMACOM.
13 Murphy, W. M. (2012). Reverse mentoring a work: Fostering cross-generational learning and developing millennial leaders.  Human Resource Management, 51(4), 549-574.