The Secret to Engaging Millennials is Really No Big Secret at All

To get back to Kansas, Dorothy never had to jump through all the death-defying hoops the Wizard put her through.

She had everything she needed (ruby slippers) from the very beginning. All she lacked was the understanding of how to unlock their magical powers.

Since they began making their way into the workforce in the late 1990’s, business leaders, owners, and managers have been trying to figure out how to drive performance from their enigmatic Millennial employees. As arduous and mysterious as this challenge has been hyped up to be, the answer is surprisingly simple.

Unlocking the power of Millennials

To unlock their power, all it takes is a one-to-one relationship with a manager who genuinely cares about them.

Many of my clients employ Millennials as their front line workforce and the face of their brand. These organizations are looking for the keys to engaging Millennials to get them to perform up to their remarkable potential.

Prior to speaking for their conventions and meetings, I conduct interviews with their front line workforce to help take leaders on a backstage tour inside the minds of those people who keep them up at night. By getting my subjects to completely relax and let their guard down, these interviews become remarkably revealing about what it is that they truly want from their managers.

This six-minute video montage features interview clips that I’ve recorded over the past eight years revealing candid comments from Millennial employees in a variety of jobs talking about what they love about their managers, and also what they hate about them. (As you’ll discover, there’s very little middle ground in-between.)

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3 keys to building workplace relationships

If you ask a Millennial to describe their job, inevitably, they will begin telling you about the relationship they have with their manager. This comes before they mention how much they are being paid or what their job responsibilities are.

The message is obvious; if you want them to work harder, perform better, and stay longer, focus your time and energy on these three (3)  crucial relationship-building keys:

  1. Get to know them – You don’t have to be friends with them, but you do need to be friendly. That requires you take an active interest in who they are outside of work. Ask them about their friends, their family, their opinions, their likes and their pet peeves. Discover where their passions lie, and know what they like to do in their spare time.
  2. Help them to get where they want to go – You have an agenda and to achieve it, you need them to be on your side. They, too, have an agenda, and they need you on their side. The more you’re able to help them get where they want to go and give them skills that will serve them along their career path – even if their job with you has little resemblance to where they are going – the more likely they are to give you all they have while they are on your payroll. (It’s also the right thing to do.)
  3. Pay attention to the good things they do – While your primary job is to stay on top of problems, you can prevent a lot of little issues from growing into problems by calling attention to those things your people are doing correctly – not just those things they are doing outstanding.

Don’t wait for someone to be late to work to remind them about the importance you place on reliability; the time to do that is when they arrive early. Don’t just point out that their last report was incomplete without also complimenting them on the three others they did correctly. Change the focus of your energy and you’ll change the culture of your organization.

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s blog Chester on Point. Eric’s new book, On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in Their People Without Burning Them Out, is available October 2015.

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at and follow him at @eric_chester


8 Comments on “The Secret to Engaging Millennials is Really No Big Secret at All

  1. The fear of millennial isn’t their enigmatic image. It has less to do with their tech prowess or social media savvy Its that they have seen real ugly times, and have had parents tell them all about the dysfunction of business and politics. How to you lie to such people to motivate them to make you and your faceless corporation rich while they rack up huge debt?

    1. The “fear” is that we won’t stand for their BS like our parents did. We’ll be out the door and onto another job.

  2. This is actually surprising insightful.

    They key thing to understand about the Millenials is that they have listened to their elders tell them, for years, that you can’t ever trust a corporation. As soon as they began to enter the workforce in numbers, this teaching was greatly reinforced by the way businesses treated the Millanials (and how society as a whole decided to call them all lazy, worthless scum for daring to be born at the wrong time.)

    This has created a sort of siege mentality within at least the leading cohorts of the generation. They trust no-one who they don’t have a personal relationship with, and they certainly don’t trust that the VP of X department “up there” in the corner office won’t hesitate to use and abuse them if he or she thinks it will benefit the company or the VP personally.

    In addition, their entry into the workforce during the recession has radically changed their consumer behavior. They don’t like monthly payments, such as their parents and older siblings loaded themselves up with by buying houses and new cars shortly after entering the workforce. Yes, they DO carry a huge amount of student debt, but they are also very well aware that no-one can repossess their education, so fear of default on their debt is far lower than for those who risk losing a house.
    What this means is that, even as Millenials are less trusting of business, businesses also have less leverage on them. Generally speaking, without children, houses, cars, etc. Millenials have a kind of freedom to skip out on a job in which they feel unfulfilled, unfairly used, or disrespected, in a way that the boomers and gen-xer’s never did due to their penchant for getting into nearly-desperate levels of debt right out of school.

    As a result, managers and business leaders, as the article suggests, are going to have to relearn the old lesson that trust and loyalty are a two-way street. If they do not, they will have a very hard time maintaining and motivating a millenial workforce.

    1. I agree except one minor detail. We didn’t “listen”, we watched and lived through the nightmare many of our parents had to go through when greedy corporations started worshipping the bottom line and focused on short-term profits at the expense of their long term longevity (which includes having a stable, loyal, talented workforce).

  3. As a Gen-X manager of Millennials, I’d agree with this, with one caveat. While I’m more than willing to compliment strengths and recognize both exceptional performance and reliability over time, I’m not going to pat someone on the head for the basics they are supposed to do, like arrive on time and make deadline.

    I’ve been interested to see so many articles about how managers can engage Millennial, but fewer advising them how to be successful in the business world. If I were picking my top 3:

    1) Be teachable. Things in the “real world” sometimes don’t work like they do in the theoretical academic world. Each workplace also has different ways of doing things. When I tell you “do this like this,” it’s not arbitrary. I’m usually glad to explain why, but I don’t want to argue every point because “Professor Smith taught me that this was the right way to do it.”

    2) If you don’t understand, ask. I’m happy to explain something a different way, or give you guidance. I *expect* you to not know everything or to get stuck sometimes. But I can’t help you if I don’t know you have questions. I’m not a mind reader. If I ask you if you understand, and you don’t, don’t just smile and nod and do it wrong, or not do it at all. That’s a waste of *everyone’s* time and effort!

    3) Work is a marathon, not a sprint. I need you to do the basics (arrive on time, put in your full day’s work, make deadlines, turn in work that conforms to standards) today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and so on. If you improve on something short term, then let it slip, I may have to conclude that you just can’t do this particular job. I understand that you have a life outside of your job. If something exceptional is going on (a sick kid, a personal crisis) let me know so I can make what accommodations can be made. But outside of that, it is your job to focus when you are in the office.

    1. 1. Sounds like you are stuck in the “we do it this inefficient/wrong way because reasons”. Most of the time “do it like this” is arbitrary, just that everyone in the company has had the life sucked out of them such that they don’t care to fix problems.

      2. That gets held against us, trust me on this. Management skills include detecting lost employees that need help.

      “don’t just smile and nod and do it wrong”

      If this is what you are finding, its because you are not approachable. You don’t come off as a problem solver, but probably as someone who gets angry at every little thing…regardless if its true or not.

      3. Nope. You give flexibility or you lose your workforce to competitors.

      I can show up 3 hours late to work without question, that means more to me then anything you could ever offer.

      I believe you might find yourself having a hard time keeping people around.

      Maybe you are accustom to everything you listed, but I assure you that your job requirements have changed. Its your job to actively manage, not wait for people to come to you with problems.

      How do I know? Because millennials (Those not with worthless degrees) are successful in the workplace and businesses are the ones whining about turnover rates and not being able to find talented people.

      I could literally walk off my job today and get another one in 2 weeks to a month. When the seesaw swings back your way you can make more stringent demands.

      1. 1) Sometimes there’s an improvement that can be made, and sometimes it’s done the way it is because that’s the most efficient way we’ve found after lots of trial and error. As I said, I welcome questions. I’ve even incorporated suggestions into our processes. But Millennials have to let go of the idea that they know everything. You don’t.

        2) Ah, the classic Millennial response…”Everything is the authority figure’s job. I have no responsibility or proactive part to play.” Our work group has coached newbies through a learning curve that would get them fired in a lot of workplaces in our industry, and they’ve become productive employees who have gone on to more responsibility or to be a success in a larger venue. I’d much rather have someone that I can count on to ask questions if they have an issue that someone I have to work behind the scenes to back up because I never know if their work is going to be complete or correct because they won’t give a straight answer.

        3) I’m happy to give flexibility when I can, but our particular business is a workflow where employees aren’t isolated from one another. Sometimes an employee’s work is upstream from someone else, and I have to give an intermediate deadline in order for the whole project to get done. Work can’t always bend to the worker’s preferences.

        If a Millennial wants to leave our workgroup because they don’t like the conditions, that’s fine. They are welcome to find a job that better suits them. But I have certain operational needs. If I can’t find them from one Millennial, there are plenty of others, not to mention Gen-X’ers and some Boomers who are still interested in working at least part time. I need team members who are willing to both give and take, not special little snowflakes.

        1. I wrote a larger response, but I figured it will be a waste of time so I’ll just touch on these as they most demonstrate your problem.

          “Everything is the authority figure’s job. I have no responsibility or proactive part to play.”

          I can see why you have trouble with young people, I gave you an explanation of the behavior (Which isn’t restricted to young people) for the second part of that list, including constructive criticism, and your response is to misquote and mock me as if I am a child with no understanding of personal responsibility and demanding I take none….rather than acknowledging the areas where YOU need improvement MANAGING people.

          I mean just dwell on it for a second…..I inform you that you probably don’t come off as approachable and part of your job is to analyze employee behavior….and what did you do? Immediately dismiss it and go on to insult me and demonize young people.

          “They are welcome to find a job that better suits them.”

          From what you are telling me, it sounds like they are. That isn’t their problem, its yours. You can’t even recognize the disgusting stereotyping you are doing, so I recommend you do just that…hire older people and stop your whining.

          Just don’t cry when half your workforce retires the coming decade or two.

          1. No, he has a perspective. It may have some truth to it. So does mine.

          2. “Millenials are going to have to work with and for Gen-X’ers or Boomers, and unless they go out on their own, those people will give them their promotions.”

            Just a side note, that’s not entirely the case. There’s a trend that has companies promoting younger people over older ones. You’ll find its a reoccurring complaint from some older workers when researching the issue.

          3. I apologize. That remark was snarky. It is the result of frustration with a passivity that many, though not all, of that generation display.

            So, let’s look at a real world example.

            When we hire people, we tell them that we want them to succeed and go on to a larger stage. We assure them that mistakes are fine, as long as you learn from them. We tell them we expect them to not know everything.

            I sit down with each employee that starts with us and take them through a few projects, giving them progressive autonomy. A few times, I’ve actually had to say, “You know, I know you know how to do this. Trust me, you’re ready.”

            I remember one time, a while back, I had a new employee that had two small fixes to make in a project. I told her the overall quality was great, but these two little things needed to be tweaked. I described both corrections, and asked if she had any questions about what I was asking her to fix. She said she didn’t. I told her I would be in my office and she could call or text me if ay questions popped up. She let me know about an hour later that her corrections were done. I looked at the second draft. One correction was done. I asked why she hadn’t done the other. She said she didn’t understand the term I was using for the technique to correct it. I asked her why she didn’t ask me that before starting on the correction. She shrugged. I started to explain the process to her and she said, “Oh, you call that rubber banding? I call it key framing. I know how to do that.” If she had just asked me what I meant by rubber banding before she started, she could have finished the corrections the first time.

            So, what should have been done differently?

          4. “I apologize. That remark was snarky. ”

            How often do you do that? Often enough to be on here complaining that you can’t find quality young people to work for you?

            “When we hire people, we tell them that we want them to succeed and go on to a larger stage. We assure them that mistakes are fine, as long as you learn from them. We tell them we expect them to not know everything.”

            Companies say that all the time, and they don’t often follow through. This isn’t just a millennial thing as company loyalty is low for everyone. Companies threw me, you, and everyone else under the bus the last decade or so such that you stating is doesn’t do much.

            You need to look at it from that perspective.

            As far as your question goes? Couldn’t tell ya. Because its a one sided story with bias and it would be near impossible to give a correct assessment of the situation.
            You might not have said or done what you thought you did OR she could very well just be a bad employee.

            What I can tell you though, is that one of the first steps to problem solving is identifying the static things, that don’t change in the equation.

            One thing is you, another thing is the interview process, and one other thing might be simply the employee pool you are drawing from.

            You may very well just be getting low quality workers because you aren’t offering enough to attract better quality. Its something I’ve seen plenty of business owners/managers complain about without realizing that this isn’t the same labor pool of 20-30 years ago…where hard working individuals were stuck with lower quality ones. Today? You are competing with a LOT more industries for quality workers.

            Medicine, Engineering, IT, finance, hell even eSports saps the worker pool.

          5. Ignore charles. He is an idiot and is not going anywhere in the real world. He is but a keyboard warrior.

          6. Yup, after that last reply, I’m starting to see that. Lots of generalized griping, very little concrete, constructive ideas. It embodies my least favorite characteristic of some Millennials. “If I succeed it’s because of my brilliance. If I fail, it’s probably your fault or the system’s fault.”

            It’s really too bad that those negatives get so much attention, because there’s really a lot of great things about the Millennials. They’re great collaborators. They cast the net for ideas very wide, not afraid to bring best practices from other industries to the table. And they really take responsibility for the emotional tenor of the workplace.

            I’ve had to adjust some things in my management style. Millennials seem to need more detailed, step-by-step instructions and more confirmation along the way. They can be uncomfortable with ambiguous situations. I work in video production, and I’m sorry but things don’t always go the way they’re supposed to and you have to learn how to think on your feet. So, the training time to get them fully independent is longer, and you often eventually have to “kick the baby bird out of the nest.” I don’t mind making these adjustments. At the same time, a bridge can’t be built with just one side. To be the best they can be, they need to learn ways to adapt as well.

          7. We do seem to work better with more step-by-step instruction. I’ve been thinking about it and I really think it has something to do with video games. A series of simple instructions with very little ambiguity.

            Actually, all of school was like that. Here is X, here is how you complete X, go complete X. As a young millennial and a manager and (kind of) owner, I can say with great certainty the adjustment is tremendous. We are trained for so long to operate in a black/white dichotomy – which was made worse for me being a science and math guy – we never really got a chance to learn the real world was mostly gray, and to really succeed you need to learn which shades to move through.

          8. I think it may also be the difference between being a latch key child and a helicopter parent’s child. When I was a kid, some of my friends did *one* extracurricular activity, but we also had big chunks of unstructured time. I remember my parents telling me not to put metal in the microwave and be careful taking stuff out. But I really learned how to use it by burning several bags of popcorn! Millennials have been in adult led activities sun up to sun down most of their life. you guys haven’t had much opportunity to try and fail and try again all by yourselves, and learn that the world doesn’t come to an end if its not perfect the first time. A big part of my training is actually getting people comfortable with just taking a stab at it, doing the best they can with the results, and taking the lessons forward for the next time.

      2. Dude, you sound like a millennial stereotype. You are also way off base with a lot of your statements.

        Sometimes a business cannot have employees who just show up when they want. Machines must be kept running, Most of the the business wants you to do things a certain way because other ways result in other problems. Yes the way they do things now may not be perfect, but it keeps problems to a minimum.

        Your entire post has been about why it’s “their” fault. Do you ever take responsibility for your actions? You have a terrible attitude.

        1. “Sometimes a business cannot have employees who just show up when they want.”

          Not what I stated, you are now making a strawman argument.

          Flexibility != just show up when you want.

          “Your entire post has been about why it’s “their” fault. Do you ever take responsibility for your actions? You have a terrible attitude.”

          Also not what I argued. I said IF its what he is finding, its probably an issue with him.
          How do you fathom someone going through X amount of people and having the same problems with all of them and it NOT having ANYTHING to do with said person at all on any level?

          I may have a terrible attitude but you have poor reading comprehension.

          1. I ignored your argument. It’s a completely different point. I don’t care about what you think you argued. I care about you making young people look bad. You are arrogant as anyone I have ever met. You need to take some responsibility.

          2. Charles is a as you said, a sad stereotype. Too common, hence the creation of the stereotype. Charles grew up getting a trophy for showing up, so he thinks he’s a winner. He can get a job in “2 weeks to a month”… that he can’t keep. See, Charles, like the other stereotypes, thinks he is a new type of employee. He isn’t.

            There have always been people who can talk their way into a job, some are also highly talented and capable of doing just about anything well, but can’t work with or for anyone. I have an older relative like that. He has excelled at every job and type of work he has attempted. He can learn and do anything, anything except get along with employers and co-workers. He has established his own businesses and the start off with a bang, and then fail when he loses interest. He isn’t an employee worth hiring for anything but a temporary position.

            This is how many millennials come across, the Charles stereotype if you will. A total inability to listen, complete arrogance that they know how to do everything better and all of their ideas are awesome – on their first day, no appreciation for history or anything that has come before, no respect for who they work for or who they work with coupled with an expectation that they will be respected without question, I’d list more but Charles has said so much and made this point for me already.

            Work ethic, important job skill. Ability to listen, important job skill. Ability to get along with co-workers and supervisors, important job skill. Ability to follow policies and rules, important job skill. For every “Charles” bouncing around full of himself, there are dozens of millennials that are actually worth employing. For the most part stereotypical millennials are just immature, and that will pass with time and life experience. Then they will turn into productive employees and co-workers worthy of a place in the business world, or they will become bums like the losers from every generation before them did.

  4. Lively discussion here. However, now that a lot of punches have been thrown (along with some relevant arguments) let’s shift the discussion towards how to more effectively engage and connect with younger workers. Any ideas or thoughts on this?

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