Retention & Engagement

Understanding the mindset of millennials

Self expression at work

In the workplace, millennials are known for certain characteristics, such as being comfortable with uncertainty and technology, and having a hardwired sense of inclusion.

Given that minds and neural patterns develop in response to lived experiences, this made us wonder: How have the experiences common to this generation shaped their social brain development, mindset and how they relate to others in the workplace?

To help answer that question, we talked with a group of millennials — Austin Root, Drew Seward, Lexie Komisar, Laura Vang, and Sarah McNee — working at IBM. During these conversations, we chose to disregard some typical and often negatively inflected myths about millennials, and consider ways that the millennials’ childhood experiences may have harnessed positive neuroplasticity and shaped their mindsets to enable them to adapt — and even thrive — in our rapidly changing world.

What we discovered is that the millennial mindset is evolving. With an open, fresh perspective, let’s explore the powers and characteristics of this “Millennial Possibility Mindset.”

Commitment to sharing and inclusion

Millennials were raised on the philosophy that “everyone gets a trophy.” The upside of this is that they have an implicit belief that everyone has something to contribute. This generation has embraced the creation of a “shared economy ethic.” They have upended many institutional hierarchies and some institutions through contributing disruptive ideas, technologies, and businesses based on sharing items and information.

Many of the IBM employees we talked to affirm this belief:

  • “I think millennials have a lot to share. I think all different generations inside the company have a lot to share, and it’s about us drawing from our collective experiences, and history…it’s about learning and having conversations, because that’s actually how you create thriving, open, organizations.” (Laura Vang)
  • “You’re not trying to one-up everyone else or get ahead while other people fall behind. It’s more of lifting everybody up together. I’ve never met a millennial who is just all for themselves and is unwilling to help anybody else.” (Austin Root)
  • “We believe that the best ideas don’t necessarily come from a leader. They come from different parts of an organization and from around the world.” (Drew Seward)
  • “We’re entrepreneurial, communicative, and collaborative. We’ve grown up in the generation that communicates and is transparent.” (Lexie Komisar)

When this sense of self  is fostered as part of a collective group, it creates engaged employees who can focus less on standing out and more on being a part of something larger than themselves.

Neuroscience research identifies a place in the brain that activates when we share or even think about sharing something with others. It’s called the Temporoparietal Junction (TPJ). Perhaps many Millennials can activate the TPJ more easily, and consider and comfortably engage with a wider diversity of people.

Interestingly, no one in the IBM group felt generational ownership of the term Millennial. Instead, they were sure that anyone, of any age, could share their perspectives.

Entitled or eager to engage?

These days, some leaders say they struggle with millennial workers who don’t seem to understand deferential communication. Some say these younger colleagues are entitled or disrespectful.

Many millennials grew up with more parental consideration; they were seen and heard, asked and answered. They also had social connections at the move of a mouse. They could easily message a friend or game with someone on another continent.

They may not feel or behave like they have to earn their place or their voice, assuming a more equal sharing of power. But they are totally willing to take up their part of the load, especially when meaning and a story connect with the goals.

Power — with and for all

We propose that millennials’ childhood relationships and experiences helped them develop a different internal concept of the social connections that surround them. They see them as more “horizontal” and full of options, versus hierarchical and limited.

Today’s realities require pervasive or distributed leadership in businesses and communities, where work is spread among people who value their part in a greater whole, and can self-manage and co-create toward a common goal.

Moving forward, humans need trust and transparency more than protectionism and siloing. The Millennial Possibility Mindset helps us flourish in a more inclusive and interconnected world, sharing power and unleashing potential.

As Sarah McNee articulated it, “Leadership is about being open with your team. It’s about uniting team members behind a common purpose, and creating an environment where they can jump in with their ideas and knowledge.”

Embracing uncertainty and diversity

Being more open and inclusive means life is less predictable. It means that we may encounter more differences.

That may create discomfort for some. Our brains function, in part, as efficient predictors. For generations, many folks have been raised to believe there is one right answer. They feel most comfortable with certainty, order and predictability.

Our brains also evolved to quickly identify “friend or foe” based on predictability and commonality as a cue for safety. But this old “neuro-model,” based on a simplistic definition of “like me, not like me,” no longer suffices for contemporary relating.

Today, we need to see all our co-workers, of all tones and worldviews, as enough “like us” to learn and work together. In rapidly changing circumstances, having more comfort and trust with a large swath of humanity and approaching unknowns or problems with curiosity and flexibility, can be key to survival. Organizations thrive on innovations that emerge from open and energized collaboration and co-creation.

Staying comfortable and thoughtful in the face of differences, unknowns and uncertainties requires an override of our automatic nervous system, which interprets uncertainty as a stressor or threat and responds to it with discomfort or confusion.

Run away? No way!

Millennials were the first folks to grow up with endless information and the full panorama of humanity available for viewing at the touch of a button. This increased their exposure to variety, complexity and the capacity to explore.

This may have changed their reaction to uncertainty, even helping them develop a new perception of and response to “not knowing.” They know how to approach it, rather than avoid it. As some millennials that we talked to put it:

  • “Uncertainty is just a constant, that’s just life. For me and for a lot of my peers, uncertainty really is opportunity.” (Lexie Komsar)
  • “If you’re not the right person, what’s your ‘yes, and’? What’s your next step to go and further move something forward?” (Sarah McNee)
  • “Failure excites me just as much as succeeding. What you get from failure is learning. ‘Cause there’s no such thing as failing; it’s just what you take from that experience to guide you.” (Austin Root)

We wonder if the Millennial Possibility Mindset rides on a nervous system made more familiar with uncertainty and differences. Therefore, millennials run less of the sympathetic arousal response of flight/fight and more on the response of social engagement and curiosity.

Implications of the millennial mindset

In the old model of defensive reactivity, an activated amygdala and fear circuits overwhelm higher brain functioning. But imagine how having a new model would allow people to approach uncertainty with confidence and optimism, believing that it’s okay not to know and to just keep trying something. This calmer inner attitude serves as a springboard for asking questions for which answers are not known, quickly learning from mistakes and comfortably welcoming different perspectives.

“I think that some of the conversations tend to have less boundaries,” said Drew Seward. “We don’t feel there are hard limits and, thus, extend our vision of what Is possible.”

These two adaptive mind qualities work synergistically. Unpredictability (uncertainty and difference) becomes an invitation for curiosity, connecting and co-creating. Feeling part of a trusting team with shared power makes approaching dilemmas easier. The possibilities for figuring out how to thrive together become magnified.

This is the Millennial Possibility Mindset.

This article was co-authored with Debra Pearce-McCall, PhD, a psychologist who translates the science of mind, brain, and relating into everyday wisdom for leaders and organizations. Her private consultations and group facilitations are engaging and impactful, and consistently create sustainable transformations. She’s a Senior Consultant for The Creating WE Institute. 

Watch this video: Meeting the challenge of the multi-generational workplace. 

Category: Retention & Engagement

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About the Author: Judith E. Glaser

Judith E. Glaser was an Organizational Anthropologist. She was one of the most pioneering and innovative change agents, consultants and executive coaches, in the consulting and coaching industry and was the world’s leading authority on Conve…

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