4 Steps To Motivating Millennial Teams

For organizations in search of talent, people born between 1977 and 1994 matter because a) there are a lot of them; and b) by 2020, their generation will make up 50% of the global workforce. This generation’s career aspirations, attitudes about work, and comfort with technology will define the work culture of the 21st century. The term “millennials”, given to this generation by social scientists and the media, is a Western label. Leaders of cross-cultural teams should be aware that this same generation in China is referred to as the “post-80’s”; in Taiwan the “strawberry generation” (supposedly because they bruise easily); for South Africans they are the “born free” generation; and in Germany, which generally follows the Western world pattern, the concept of vergangenheitsbewattigung (learning to analyze, digest, and live with the past) shapes this generation’s worldview in ways unique to the German experience. Whatever term we use to name the next generation (I will use millennial for the sake of simplicity), organizational and team leaders should strive to appreciate how their worldviews have been shaped by a blend of educational experiences that have emphasized collaboration, teamwork, and continuous feedback; unprecedented economic swings; and the explosion of new technologies that have been a part of their lives from birth.

Millennial Motivation – Something Old. Something New.

Virtually every article on the millennial generation focuses on their differences from prior generations. While this focus may be enlightening, and at times entertaining, it is not particularly helpful to the team leaders who are charged with building engaged effective teams.

The best place to start when building a team, regardless of age, is recognizing that the drivers of work motivation – purpose, competency, and autonomy – are universal and cross-generational. The difference across generations (and sometimes cultures) is a matter of the emphasis placed upon each core psychological driver. For many Millennials, their life experiences have shaped a worldview that demands greater clarity of purpose and meaning in their work; continual investment in their development and feedback on their progress; and opportunities to demonstrate their competencies as quickly as they develop them. In addition, relationships play a central role in their sense of work-life balance and well-being.

For team leaders, the good news is that by understanding what motivates your team members at a fundamental human level, and ensuring strong, trusting relationships, you can build an effective team irrespective of the mix of generations. However, as the number of millennials on your team grows, your challenge may become the organizational context in which you are attempting to recruit and retain talent. Millennials place far more emphasis on personal needs, particularly in terms of continual learning, feedback, and advancement. They are team and collaboration-centric, and are turned off by hierarchy and information silos (and the arrogance and self-importance that often accompanies rigid corporate structures). For innovative organizations and leaders that are not constrained by a mentality of “this is how we’ve always done things”, attracting and engaging millennials is not difficult. Organizations and leaders who are mired in “20th-century hierarchies, power structures, and thinking” face the prospect of an aging workforce and an eroding competitive position.

Essentials for Millennial Team Success

Attracting and retaining the best talent has always been a matter of meeting the core psychological needs of each team member. For the millennial generation, those needs have been amplified – and in many instances are at odds with 20th-century models of organizational structure and behaviors. When building multi-generational teams with a growing mix of millennials, there are four essentials for success:

  • Ensure clarity of purpose. For most employees, the mission matters. This is especially true for millennials. Ensure that the purpose of the team is clear and that you help each team member align the meaning and purpose of their role in the broader team mission.
  • Invest in competencies. Millennials have been raised on information at the speed of the Internet. Channeling the drive to learn into competency development that benefits them and their career is critical for keeping them engaged.
  • Create a culture of collaborative choice. Whether it is in crafting their assignments or in solving problems, Millennials are motivated by leaders who support autonomy. Twentieth-century hierarchy and power structures that dictate and regulate are a turn-off and demotivating.
  • Focus on relationships. Specifically, focus on the expectations that team members have of you, the team leader, as well as of each other, versus the experiences they are having. Acknowledging and addressing gaps between experiences and expectations is the fast-track to strong, trusting relationships, and individual well-being. Ignoring these gaps is an equally fast path to deteriorating relationships and disengagement.

From Google and Apple to SpaceX and IDEO, the companies attracting talented millennials share common themes around inspiration, innovation, collaboration, teamwork, and well-being. Those themes create cultural narratives that are intrinsically attractive to the best and brightest young talent. If your organization aspires to success in the 21st century, then attracting and retaining Millennial talent is going to play a critical role in realizing that ambition. Make sure that you focus on the essentials of their success.

PWC (2011). Millennials at work: Reshaping the workplace.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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