How to Motivate Millennials at Work

Providing clear expectations and boundaries positions members of the younger generation for success

Not Everyone Gets a Trophy Bruce Tulgan

The Millennials you manage want freedom to maneuver at work. They want some latitude when it comes to their schedule, where they do their work, whom they work with, what they do, and how they do it. The problem is that every task, responsibility, and project has parameters that constrain every employee's freedom.

But as much as they love freedom, Millennials also gravitate to structure and boundaries. For one thing, they don't want to waste their time. Don't forget, since they were kids, Millennials have been hyperscheduled by overbearing adults. Whether they were being subjected to metal detectors, locker searches and lockdowns in school, or their own "individual learning plans" -- and everything in between -- Millennials are well accustomed to programs and procedures. One Millennial describes it this way: "The last thing I'm looking for is somebody telling me, 'Yeah, do it how you think it should be done,' but then it turns out she already knows exactly how she wants it done. I don't want to beat my head against the wall trying to figure something out if you've already got it figured out. I definitely am interested in putting my personal stamp on things, but if that's not going to happen, tell me up front."

If you want to give Millennials more freedom at work, the biggest favor you can do for them is establish clear boundaries and give them a structure within which they can function with some autonomy. It is true that some jobs require employees to take risks and make mistakes. Even in those cases, it is the manager's job to help Millennials avoid taking unnecessary risks and repeating mistakes that others have already made. Creativity and innovation do not require recklessness. You tell the advertising copywriter to "think outside the box," but you must also help him avoid libel, slander, and obscenity. 

You need the nuclear scientist to be innovative, but you must help her avoid a nuclear explosion. It's great if your food preparation workers are creative, but you don't want them changing the recipes on regular menu items. As a leader, you have to create a structure and clear boundaries in order to create a space in which risk taking and mistakes are truly safe in the context of a job.

Often a good way to allow Millennials to express creativity is to give them assignments that are truly matters of first impression. Maybe you, as the manager, don't yet have a clear goal in mind; you don't know exactly what you are looking for yet. This is a great opportunity to ask a young employee to "take a crack at it" and "do it however you think it should be done" and really mean what you say. It's perfectly fine to use this Millennial to help you work out the early stages of your own creative process. 

But make sure you are clear from the start about the structure and boundaries. Explain that you are delegating only the initial stage of the creative process and you intend to take the project back.

In fact, whenever you have a new task, responsibility, or project for one of your very capable young employees, always start by spelling out expectations. Make absolutely sure that person understands exactly what he is expected to do and how he is expected to do it. That's the only way to get employees to adopt your organization's best practices and turn them into standard operating procedures. 

As long as the assignment lasts, you should follow up regularly with one-on-one check-in conversations to review the employee's progress. In those conversations, you should ask, "What have you already done? What steps did you follow? What step are you going to do next?" Listen carefully to their answers. Make it a habit to wrap up these conversations by deciding on a specific place and time for your next meeting to follow up. 

Every assignment, no matter how much freedom and creativity is required, must have clear goals and specific deadlines with measurable benchmarks along the way. Boundaries and structure, however loose, are actually the keys to making freedom and creativity in the real world possible.

This article was adapted from Bruce Tulgan's book, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Jossey-Bass).

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), and It's Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by email at [email protected], you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website