Three Ways Millennials Make You a Better Leader

Some bemoan the inevitable—that millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) are becoming a larger section of the workforce. If you Google “millennials and work,” a plethora of articles will show up. Some affirm traits in millennials that contribute to a healthy work environment: creativity, technological savvy, or altruism. Others point to millennials and express frustration for a lack of commitment, work ethic concerns, or unrealistic expectations. Regardless if affirming or expressing concern, most agree that millennials are motivated differently than preceding generations.

Motivation is often categorized in two large buckets: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is internal. It is motivation grounded in the desire to do great work, to contribute, to make an impact, to connect with people, and to serve others. When someone is intrinsically motivated, they find satisfaction in the work itself. Extrinsic motivation is the offering of external rewards in exchange for work well done. It can also be the threat of removing rewards for work that is unsatisfactory.

Millennials, as a whole, are more intrinsically motivated and less extrinsically motivated than preceding generations. And this should make leaders better because it pulls them into intrinsic motivation.

Here are three ways leading millennials makes a leader better:

1. You must lead with why.

The reason leaders, for years, have utilized extrinsic motivation is because it actually works. People do respond to promises of bonuses, raises, more vacation, etc. But this works less on millennials. And it has always, always been surface level and short-lived. Those who rely solely on extrinsic motivation never have the hearts of those they lead. Extrinsic motivation does not require great leadership; it merely requires control over a budget. Intrinsic motivation requires leaders to have a clear and compelling why behind the activity, a mission that motivates people to contribute. Millennials will nudge some leaders to lead with why, to articulate a mission and to clarify values. And this will make leaders better.

2. You must develop.

I recognize that it is naïve to project traits of a generation on every person in that generation. In every generation, there are those who go against the grain. And people cannot be categorized so neatly because God created each person unique. But one trait that has been recognized in many millennials is the desire to learn and be developed. They don’t want merely transactional leadership from their supervisors. They want someone who will invest in them. When leaders develop others, they are simultaneously developed.

3. You must care.

This has always been true but seems more pronounced among millennials: people want to follow someone who cares, someone who is passionate about the work, someone who isn’t “buying time” till retirement. If you don’t care, if you are not passionate, millennials are likely to sniff that out and view you as a sellout that is only working because of extrinsic motivation. Leading millennials will help you perform regular gut-checks to ensure you are internally motivated.

Actually, great leaders—leaders who motivate people intrinsically—have already been prepared to lead millennials. It is the poor leaders, those who rely on carrots, who are ill-prepared to lead millennials.