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Why Millennials Get Collaborative Leadership (and You Should, Too)

Paula Martin
Paula Martin

Millennials want to engage and contribute in meaningful ways to both business and society.

As millennials eclipse older generations in the workforce, some company leaders are trying to force the generation to fit into traditional hierarchical management systems. That won't cut it, especially as more millennials enter leadership roles.

Consider a millennial friend of mine, an engineer we'll call Mary. Mary holds an undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a graduate degree from Cambridge. She's smart, hardworking and great with people. Anyone would agree she's the ideal young professional.

After graduate school, Mary landed a job with a big oil company. Although the work was challenging and the money was plentiful, she hated the organization – mentorship opportunities were sparse, the bureaucracy was stifling, and Mary had little say over her own work. So she left, taking a 30% pay cut for a position at a large company that promised everything she was missing.

There, Mary found the same hierarchy and the same problems.

She now works at a smaller company that matches her values more closely. And her story is not an uncommon one: According to a recent Deloitte survey, 49% of millennials would quit their current jobs within two years if they had the choice.

Instead of trying to force millennials to conform, business leaders must evolve, or risk alienating this vital part of the workforce. To start, revamping leadership and fostering effective collaboration will go a long way toward appealing to millennial workers. WeSpire outlined 10 things millennials look for in an employer. Check out the top five:

  1. Corporate learning
  2. Purpose
  3. Culture
  4. Flexibility
  5. Real responsibilities

You'll notice money and power didn't even make the list. Millennials want to engage and contribute in meaningful ways to both business and society. It's time for organizations to let them.

The trouble with outdated systems

For 25 years, I've helped organizations upgrade their operating systems. Admittedly, it's difficult for large or legacy companies to change their ways.

But the workforce has changed thanks to emerging technologies, different consumer interests and shifting market forces. Now, millennials want new dynamics in the workplace – an environment where workers share power and responsibility.

This new value system can't exist in the old operating system. New power is not hierarchical; it's egalitarian, networked (or matrixed), collaborative and transparent. Everyone plays multiple roles. The hierarchy, or vertical dimension, acts as a support system for interconnected teams. Stakeholder teams make decisions using collaborative tools. The focus is horizontal – it's on customers and suppliers, products and services, and business processes and projects.

According to a report by American Express, nearly 40% of millennials already assume the current hierarchical format will no longer be relevant in 10 years.

Viewing millennials in a new light

Millennials are looking for organizations where they can engage in meaningful work. Taking cues from this generation's values can mean the difference between evolution and obsolescence.

Today's world is changing at breakneck speed: An organization's survival requires harnessing the collective talent of its people. Likewise, creating a culture that embraces employee contributions isn't a corporate strategy for recruiting millennials talent; it's a critical shift for increasing the engagement and productivity of employees from every generation.

Unless you want to get left behind, your seasoned team members must be willing to learn an entirely different leadership approach. Ideally, each individual leader can adopt his or her own collaborative style and receive training on helpful methods and tools. For organizationwide transformation, leaders must get behind the change and model desired behavior.

Implementing leadership and effective collaboration

To tap into millennials' talent (and support transformational leadership), tackle these three areas to build a more welcoming and productive workplace. You'll take your leadership and effective collaboration to new heights:

  1. Meetings.The first step toward collaborative (and millennial-friendly) decision-making is to change how you run meetings. Many leaders don't know how to run a collaborative meeting, so most meetings are directive: Someone sits at the head of the table and shares news. If that person is a bit more enlightened, he or she might collect input and then impart his or her decision to the gathered throngs.

    A collaborative meeting operates differently: The assembled team works together to make a decision or create a plan. This shift is easier if the team has been trained in collaborative decision-making or planning. Instead of issuing updates and edicts, meeting leaders provide process and facilitation. Ultimately, these meetings should produce solutions or results, even if the outcome is simply greater understanding or communication of project updates.
  1. Projects.Most leaders try to steer initiatives with a command-and-control approach, which doesn't work for millennials. And frankly, it doesn't work for anyone. Projects tend to run outside the hierarchy, meaning they bring together people from different departments and at different authority levels. This makes projects a wonderful opportunity for employees to practice collaboration.

    Just like leading meetings, collaborative project leadership shifts the onus of planning tasks and decisions from the leader to the team. When the team learns how to plan a project and monitor its progress, it owns the project and develops a deeper commitment. This sense of ownership provides the engagement millennials crave; it also improves productivity and efficiency. Essentially, people work better and faster on projects they're excited about and engaged in.

    Projects are a team sport, and the team wants to participate. In this capacity, the leader must become a facilitator and coach; he or she can't control everything. In this new era, leaders must learn to empower the team; it energizes teams and produces better results.
  1. Goal setting.In the old operating system, leaders set unrealistic goals – often known as "stretch" goals – for their teams. This approach sets everyone up to fail, which creates a culture of (you guessed it) failure. To attain a culture of success, then, set people up to succeed. Do this by letting them set their own goals, ones that are realistic and achievable. Teams can create baseline and upside goals as well: The baseline goals are achievable, and the upsides are a stretch. This approach provides a challenge and a sense of accomplishment.

    In the new operating system, the team sets the goal instead of the leader. When a leader sets goals, people tend to resist, especially if that goal is unrealistic. Nothing kills motivation more than having your boss give you a goal that you can't achieve because it's just not doable.

    Let teams determine what they can and can't achieve. Let them define their own deadlines and budget. Let them have contingency so that when things do go wrong – as they inevitably do – they can recover and still succeed.

A more collaborative future

The old management systems have been broken for decades, long before millennials entered the workforce. Unlike their predecessors, however, this generation has refused to accept the status quo.

Now, more millennials are in leadership roles, and they're increasing workplace collaboration, engagement and effectiveness. This is true both in startups and in enlightened organizations that recognize the need for new systems based on new power.

Image Credit: scyther5 / Getty Images
Paula Martin
Paula Martin Member
As the CEO, chief creative officer, and director of product and service development at the Matrix Management Institute, Paula Martin is passionate about changing the nature of work to be more in line with human potential. Get her free e-book, “Matrix Management Reinvented: The New Game in Town,” to learn how to transform your organization with a culture of success.