There’s been a fascination with Millennials in the nonprofit world that may be enticing leaders down the wrong path due to some incorrect notions about what Millennials think, and whether it’s even relevant in the first place.

“Oh dear, how do I manage my Millennials?”

Advice plentiful for managing Millennials

Since Millennials came of age, talk about how to manage them has consumed a great deal of time and oxygen. After all, they’re 80 million strong. But the concern comes mostly from the notion that Millennials are somehow a different animal from the rest of us.

Some experts on Millennials want to teach us how to manage our Millennials. Apparently it requires a shake-up of traditional management principles. What worked on Gen-Xers and Boomers simply won’t do for our Millennials.

Millennials: lazy and narcissistic?

The common “knowledge” is that the generation born between 1980 and 2000 (roughly) is lazy and narcissistic. One commentary, a result of a meta-study on narcissism in young people across the generations, even calls the present state of (Millennial) affairs a “narcissism epidemic.”

That, according to the research, translates into an emphasis on money, fame and image.

The supposed consequences of a supposedly more narcissistic generation, according to one of the scientists who contributed to that meta-study:

  • lower empathy
  • less concern for others
  • less civic engagement (interest in politics, for example)

The proposed solution is for teachers and parents to stress the values of hard work and consideration for others. That implies laziness and selfishness.

Millennialism or just youth?

By merely accepting that Millennials are lazy and narcissistic, and adjusting leadership theories accordingly, we might be doing ourselves and our organizations a huge disservice.

Is there, in fact, anything that separates Millennials from any other generation other than their youth? They’ve been described as narcissistic, but think back to your twenties: Weren’t you, too?

And it’s been said they’re lazy, too. And that they will leave their jobs when they don’t feel that their employer’s values match their own. That may indicate fickleness, or idealism, depending on your perspective.

It might be that we’re making something out of nothing. Narcissistic? Lazy? Idealistic? Are those generational descriptors or do they simply describe youth?

Is this lazy leadership?

But in accepting these generalizations and mapping the prescribed management techniques onto our own teams, are we guilty of being lazy ourselves? Are we letting generation theorists tell us how to lead, forgoing the wisdom that derives from our own insight and experience?

Good management isn’t one-size-fits-all. It’s a unique combination of company culture, organizational behavior, individual talent, team building, vision, personal insight, and much more.

It’s always true that you can’t manage “them.” You can only manage individuals. My executive coaching clients—all nonprofit chief executives, and their senior leadership teams—have never, not once, complained about Millennials. I haven’t asked why (I plan to), but I do know that to a person they all realize you can’t manage groups. You have to manage individuals.

Besides, the generalizations about Millennials may not even be true.

We should question the notion of a generation’s “specialness”

The Pew Research Center issued an exhaustive report on Millennials, summarizing them not as lazy and self-absorbed but thoughtful, committed to family, and concerned about the well-being of those in need.

That tips on end many things we’ve been told so far about this generation.

Rather than entitled and selfish, they are open-minded and connected with others. That results in a collective social conscious that’s elevated the food industry (“eat local”), the clothing industry (socially conscious fabrics and manufacturing processes), and just about every other industry as well. Rather than narcissism, this is communitarianism.

Here’s what else the Pew study has to say.

The Pew report tells us that over half of Millennials are concerned with being a good parent. Compare that with the mere 9% who say having lots of free time is a major concern, and the mere 15% who say having a high-paying career is a priority, and the idea of narcissism and laziness begins to dissolve.

So, Millennials value family and meaningfulness, but is that unique to their generation?

Succession planning implications for nonprofits

People who value their families and the mission come in all ages, shapes, and sizes. Their positive influence is a key ingredient in success with nonprofit succession planning.

Many “heroic” nonprofit leaders, especially those who founded their organizations, are not “succeedable” because no one wants their job as they’ve designed it (requiring 70-80 hour weeks and no vacations).

Make yourself succeedable. People don’t want your job not because of their age or generation, but because of the personal sacrifices you’ve made, that they don’t want to make.

Millennials want what your funders want

Millennials want outcomes with value. They want their work to make a difference in people’s lives. They want to see social benefit in their work as well as their philanthropy. A Stanford Social Innovation Review article article cites research showing Millennials are very willing to invest their money in companies who they feel will have a positive impact on society.

They seem to be driven, therefore, by outcome rather than input and output. Viewed in that light, it might be easier to understand the Millennial employee who is not driven to stay at work until 5pm. If the work is done by 3, why stick around? There are prospective donors to meet or thank, so why shouldn’t you all just leave at 3 if the work (in the office) is done?

It takes a creative mind to view management in this light, and a lazy manager probably won’t see the advantage. If you want to be a good manager of Millennials, start seeing them as individuals, not one special generation that’s cut from a different cloth. Sure, their perspective is different, but it may just be because they’re young.