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IBM to Employers: You Need a 'Millennial Mindset'

IBM to Employers: You Need a 'Millennial Mindset'
Credit: Rawpixel/Shutterstock

NEW YORK — Millennials. Depending on whom you ask, this now-ubiquitous generational term might evoke disdain, optimism and in the case of some business leaders, absolute panic. The presence of Generation Y continues to grow in the workforce — they'll make up 50 percent by 2020 — and employers are putting a top priority on optimizing their culture for younger employees.

But what if companies are approaching millennials all wrong? What if staying relevant isn't so much about catering to millennials themselves, but instead creating a "millennial mindset" that will help catapult a business into the future? According to a new IBM study, that's exactly what employers need to do — and the first step is to stop believing in widely held, but incorrect stereotypes about millennials.

On Feb. 18 at the IBM Watson headquarters in New York City, the company revealed new research by IBM's Institute for Business Value (IBV) about the multigenerational workforce and how employees of all ages view themselves. The global study, which surveyed 1,784 employed, college-educated workers in three age groups, 21 to 34 (Gen Y); 35 to 49 (Gen X) and 50 to 60 (baby boomers), found that people of each generation are more alike than one might think. [Are Millennials Getting Special Treatment in the Workplace?]

"Regardless of generation, everyone wants the same thing," said Carolyn Heller Baird, global research leader for IBM IBV. "The things you do for millennials? Gen Xers and boomers want them, too, and they've wanted them for a long time."

Baird noted that one of IBM's most interesting findings was that across the board, each generation prioritized the same career expectations in approximately the same proportions. Among the top goals for all three groups were making a positive impact on the organization, helping solve social/environmental challenges and working with a diverse group of people. This disproves the idea that millennials have fundamentally different values when it comes to what they want in an employer.

Workers of all ages also respond to the same general types of engagement tactics: Each generation said inspirational leadership, performance-based recognition/promotions and a collaborative work environment were good ways to engage employees.

Other findings that debunk common millennial myths include:

  • Gen Y would rather have an ethical and fair boss than one who gives them constant praise and recognition.
  • Though they do consider themselves technologically savvy, millennials don't want to do everything digitally: They prefer face-to-face career development opportunities, such as conferences, classroom training and working with more experienced colleagues.
  • Millennials value their colleagues' input when making work decisions, but they're not that much more likely to do so than other generations.
  • Gen Y won't job hop for no reason. Their top motivators for leaving an employer are better salary and a more creative work environment — the same reasons cited by Gen X and boomers.

So what can employers do to attract and retain millennials without alienating other generations? IBM offered the following recommendations for creating a workplace that embraces millennial strengths like technological proficiency and applies them to the organization's culture as a whole. 

Focus on the individual. Instead of viewing your staff as generational groups, work on managing them as individuals, each with his or her own goals, preferences and work habits. In addition to implementing policies and programs that accommodate for everyone's career aspirations, the IBM report advised looking into a workforce analytics solution to track individual growth and progress.

Foster a collaborative culture. As remote work and distributed offices become more commonplace, employers need to think about how to best leverage technological tools that enable efficient collaboration. Leaders should also be sure to encourage and listen to input from all team members.

Make customer experience a priority. The IBM report found that, to some extent, all generational groups think their organization handles the customer experience poorly, particularly baby boomers (70 percent) and millennials (60 percent). Technology like social media and CRM solutions can vastly improve that experience, but leaders need to be transparent about the challenges involved and work with their employees to solve them.

Look within. Employees respond well to inspirational leadership, but the IBM report noted that managers and executives must know themselves — strengths, weaknesses and all — in order to lead effectively. Do you inspire confidence? Show interest in your staff's development? Communicate clearly? Ask yourself these and other questions that will help you determine if you're connecting with your team.

Get everyone on board. If your employees aren't all on the same page about your business strategy and expectations, you'll never create a unified culture. Employees should know not only what your organization hopes to accomplish, but what individual role they play in achieving those goals.

To download the full study, visit IBM.

Nicole Fallon

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. Nicole served as the site's managing editor until January 2018, and briefly ran Business.com's copy and production team. Follow her on Twitter.