EngagementDiversity & InclusionAsk a millennial: there’s more to your employees than meets the eye

Ask a millennial: there’s more to your employees than meets the eye

When you treat all your employees the same way, you’re stopping them from reaching their full potential.

When you treat all your employees the same way, you’re stopping them from reaching their full potential. In this blog post, Kerri Hollis talks to workplace psychologist Ian MacRae to bust the myths around millennials in the workplace. Along the way, they discover the hidden diversities in every demographic.


You never really know what someone is thinking.

That was the thought photographer and artist Gillian Wearing had in 1992. So she took to the streets of London to begin a new project she called Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say. She approached members of the public and asked them to write down on a sign what they were thinking. Then she snapped a photo.

When the series premiered at the City Racing gallery, then later appeared at the Tate, it was praised for juxtaposing what people look like and what they think. One photo especially stood out. A well-dressed businessman holding an unexpected sign saying: I’m desperate.

It’s easy to make snap judgements about individuals or entire groups of people. Especially at work, when you’re trying to deal with lots of people and keep them all happy. And we know it’s wrong. Unfortunately, though, business leaders still do it when trying to engage millennials.

Many people think millennials are changing the way we work because they’re completely different to any generation that’s come before. They must require a completely different approach to engagement.

But if you want to truly engage someone, you have to truly understand them first.

What’s the difference?

Ian MacRae is a workplace psychologist and author of the book Myths at Work. He’s also a millennial. And as a millennial, he knows just how wrong the assumptions about his generation are. I sat down with him to find out why.

“There’s actually been a huge amount of scientific research,” Ian tells me. “And the research finds there’s no difference. Millennials vary as widely within them as any other generation. Whether it’s Gen X, Gen Y, Baby Boomers…”

Yes, it’s true that we may have up to five generations in the workplace. And millennials are contributing to a changing workplace. But what Ian has found is that there are as many differences within groups of employees as there are between groups of employees.

Like the ways they prefer to work.

The stage they’re at in their career.

Their ambitions for the future.

So it’s not just millennials. Everyone in your business is contributing to a changing workplace. And as Ian points out, “If you use stereotypes about broad groups, you’re not going to manage people effectively. You’re going to get it wrong about most people.”

When it comes to leading and engaging people, you never really know how someone responds best. Until you ask them.

Ask a millennial

When I asked Ian how he defines employee engagement, he told me, “It’s feeling passionate and really putting yourself into the work.” It made me think that, for employees, millennials or not, to put themselves into their work, they need to be able to be themselves. To not hide behind some generalisation. To be able to work how they want to work, and not how someone else thinks they should work.

Leaders have to stop trying to guess what their people are thinking. Stop treating everyone in a group the same way. And, dare I say it, stop reading blog posts about how to engage millennials at work.

Instead, engage your people as individuals. Ask what they want from their workplace, how they prefer to work, and what they’re really thinking. Like Gillian Wearing, you might be surprised at what they tell you.

I sat down with Ian MacRae, workplace psychologist and author of Myths at Work, to find out more about how generational stereotypes can get in the way of effective employee engagement. You can join the conversation here.

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