Are Today’s Leaders Ready For The Millennial Culture Shake-Up?

Millennials are most satisfied when they have a voice and when they know their voice has merit.

Millennials are shaking up some established work norms, and leaders should be ready to change. By 2018, the Millennial generation is expected to comprise 50 percent or more of the U.S. labor force. One study (Cabrera, 2015) shows that 45 percent of companies report higher turnover rates among Millennials, who will stay with their employers for an average of three years. These demographic trends have major implications for organizations and the leaders who run them. Organizations must shape and sustain a culture that attracts, engages, and successfully interacts with the Millennial population.

Millennials are less inclined to stay in a job or with an organization where they are dissatisfied. According to one study (Smith and Turner, 2015), Millennials want to work in a culture that:

  • Encourages voice, work-life balance, and flexibility
  • Develops leadership skills
  • Offers mentoring support
  • Demonstrates core values aligned with their own

Organizations that can successfully shape and sustain a collaborative Culture of Voice will have the highest likelihood of retaining and engaging Millennials. This demographic is less encumbered by the trappings of material possessions that appealed to previous generations. Millennials don’t need an unsatisfactory job just to make the car or mortgage payment because they can easily take Uber or rent an apartment.

A recent Northern Arizona University study showed Millennials are rejecting some of the work norms established by previous generations such as extreme work hours (Campione, 2015). According to the study, “anything they perceive as unfair, unreasonable, or unmanageable will cause them to leave” (p. 70). A 2016 Gallup poll reported $30.5 billion is lost to Millennial turnover costs every year, considering the cost of recruitment, evaluation, interviewing, onboarding, training, and lost productivity. These costs are unsustainable, and leaders must begin to understand how to motivate and engage this population. Leaders also must understand the Millennial mindset, worldview, and satisfaction drivers if they are to successfully attract, engage, and retain them.


The Millennial generation is the most educated, technologically sophisticated generation ever tracked. Millennials have seen unprecedented events such as the Oklahoma City bombing; the Columbine High School massacre; and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Being exposed to such fear and lack of security led Millennials to value job satisfaction, security, quality of life, and opportunity for advancement as priorities over financial compensation. They are less concerned about saving money or purchasing a car or a large home as previous generations, as their focus is on experiencing life in the moment.

Millennials do not remember a time without mobile devices and the Internet. They tend to value confidence, optimism, civic duty, morality, street smarts, diversity, and technology. They are comfortable using multiple types of technology in the workplace and are good at multitasking, listening to music, texting or “whatsApping” on their smartphones, while simultaneously getting their work done. They tend to consider e-mail and electronic communication to be more efficient; therefore, they prefer texting a colleague versus having a verbal or face-to-face conversation at work. Baby Boomer and Gen X managers tend to prefer verbal and face-to-face interaction to electronic communication, thereby experiencing dissonance with Millennial-preferred interaction norms.


Millennials want visionary leaders and full transparency. They want clear expectations for their job responsibilities, duties, and how their performance is evaluated and a clear understanding of how their job fits into the organization’s mission and core values. Moreover, Millennials want to feel like they are part of something bigger. They want to know how to move forward in the organization, which includes discussing and acquiring the skills, training, experience, and qualification for higher-level positions.

Millennials expect mentorship, coaching, training, and development opportunities at work, and they want to enjoy what they do, so they often look for opportunities to align their work with their interests. They want to understand the “why” of the tasks they do and how it relates to the bigger picture of the company, as well as how the work they do has an impact on society as a whole.


Some common and erroneous stereotypes held about Millennials include tendencies of self-interest, entitlement, disloyalty, and overconfidence (Myers and Sadaghiani, 2010). You can find employees who are selfish, entitled, disloyal, and overconfident in any generation, so this is not generation specific.

Outside of being aware of and controlling for naïve attribution and stereotypes, managers must be equipped to motivate Millennials, and there are several practices that are important to master soon.

Our advice is to acknowledge and legitimize your Millennial employees’ values and priorities. There is one best way to find out: ASK them! If you are not used to this type of interaction, you may want to brush up on your interpersonal competencies.

Research shows Millennials have several distinct characteristics relative to previous generations. Most notably are these three:

1. 66 percent of Millennials agree that “they expect to have interaction with their supervisors” (Hershatter and Epstein, 2010).

2. Millennials’ parents often are older because they waited longer to have children. The parents are also typically well educated, and they interacted with their children more than in previous generations (Howe & Strauss, 2000).

3. 58 percent of Millennials are comfortable asking their boss for help when they need it (Hershatter and Epstein, 2010).

The next generation of performance reviews is off and running. IBM, Adobe, Deloitte, Cargill, and GE are moving from the annual review process to a quarterly preview process focused on opportunity for growth and upgrades, versus a review of what went well and not so well in the past. A Cornell University study revealed that Cargill showed a 9 percent increase in personal value perception among the employee population, and Adobe reported a 25 percent reduction in voluntary turnover (Park and Zhou, 2013). At Cargill, 38 percent of employees reported improved conversation quality with their managers.


Managers can shape a Culture of Voice by encouraging voice and interaction. Here are a few practices that most likely will encourage voice:

1. Build up ideas and never tear them down, even if they seem half-baked.

2. Strengthen your tolerance for divergent thinking. Look for and encourage different viewpoints at every opportunity.

Minimize the silence phenomenon by doing these things:

1. Never put down ideas or suggestions in public.

2. Never ignore an employee’s ideas or recommendations. They may not seem significant to you, but they are most likely important to the employee.

3. Pay close attention to even the slightest nonverbal language that sends the message, “That is ridiculous.”

Shaping Cultures of Voice is every manager’s daily work. It is easy to create a Culture of Silence and difficult to unwind it. Millennials are most satisfied when they have a voice and when they know their voice has merit. HR policies must become flexible and tasks meaningful for Millennials. Get to know your employees and what makes them tick. It’s OK to get it wrong; Millennials are not shy and are more likely than previous generations to let you know when they are dissatisfied. Be aware of your every action and inaction, because it has consequences not only for the Millennial but for all your employees.

An expert in organizational cultures of voice and silence, Dr. Rob Bogosian is the founder and principal at RVB Associates, Inc., and adjunct faculty, Executive MBA Program, Florida Atlantic University. His firm helps clients achieve and sustain competitive advantage by linking leadership development to business strategy.

Dr. Charlene Rousseau is president of Envisionary Development Consulting, LLC (EDC), a performance management and development consultancy offering end-to-end learning and organizational development (L&OD) solutions strategically aligned with companies’ visions and goals for measurable impactful results. She is also graduate adjunct faculty at Baker College and SNHU.