Workplace Millennial: "I want to make a difference" is normal


You have most likely heard many stereotypes of Millennials. This is blog about the part that says all Millennials ‘want to make a difference.’ Often ridiculed as some wet, unrealistic expectation that all of us can be saving the world.

Not true. To understand why, you have to understand a little about how hope that lies at the root of all human action. My recent explainer on hope as a fundamental building block of all employee engagement is here. It’s only 500 words, but the shortened version is:

No one does anything without the hope, at a basic level, that their action will achieve its goal.  

You wouldn’t send your colleague an email if you did not hope that they would read it, they would acknowledge it, they would act on it, or similar.

I believe that kind of basic-level hope is what Millennials are talking about. Probably without even realising it. (Actually, Reluctantly Brave’s research indicates that it is also a big thing for Gen Z (born 1996-, roughly speaking) who are just joining the workforce now.)

That would mean that there is not much difference between engaging Millennial and non-Millennial employees.

Making a difference: Workplace-style

As Simon Sinek rather amusingly suggests in this video, most of us Millennials ourselves can’t articulate what ‘making a difference’ means. Researching and working with both Millennials and Gen Z-ers indicates the same thing to me.

So, remember when I tell you:

When it comes to job satisfaction it definitely doesn’t mean “I want to save the world’

though there are some people, of all generations, who do want to do that.

Think about it: if it was about saving the world in your job, why would a St Louis-based Financial Services and Insurance company be number 3 in Forbes’s list of best places for Millennials to work, as voted by Millennials? Consider what that review of Edward Jones says about its culture.

Now, think about the email you were going to send to a colleague. Those mundane hopes you had that made you send it, how might those apply to career choices, job applications, workstreams you want to get involved in? You would choose:

·      A career where you can see your actions are likely to be effective

·      A job where you can see your effort is likely to be worthwhile

·      To work on projects where your work is both useful and actually used by your colleagues

·      To work with people who would actually incorporate your opinions, at least sometimes 

Because your work is likely to make a difference. Because, like with sending an email, otherwise you wouldn’t bother.

So, the stereotype of Millennials looking for jobs where they can make a difference is just a reflection of exactly how everyone thinks at work but writ large.

In a world where it’s normal to keep changing jobs and everyone paints a picture that their life and work are all just amazing, there’s both motivation and opportunity to look elsewhere with that hope. Especially if your present job feels like your work isn’t useful or actually used, for example.

The concept isn’t difficult: everyone wants to see a purpose to their work. 50 year-olds are exactly the same. They might articulate hope/hopelessness differently but, if your organization leaves them without hope, they will leave just like the 30 year-olds.

It's about leadership

Leaders, be pragmatic. Like it or not (frankly, what does it matter whether you like it?) this is the workforce and it’s your job to get the best out of them.

Companies can be doing so much more to tell the story of how people’s work makes a difference. They can be doing so much more to remove their internal barriers to people’s work feeling useful, and to it actually being used.

What it boils down to is:

Are you doing enough to make people’s rock-pushing feel worthwhile. If so, they’ll push massive rocks for you. If not, they won’t even start.

And if your organisation isn’t doing everything it can to give people basic, mundane hope – that is a failure of leadership, at some level. If not all levels.

Don’t believe me? Try Simon Sinek, one of the biggest leadership gurus of our time (the bit about leadership and work environment specifically is at 10:25). Don’t believe him? Well, good luck.