The Millennial “Trophy Generation”: Entitled or Eager to Engage?

by Judith E. Glaser and Debra Pearce-McCall

When you think Millennials, the “everyone gets a trophy” idea comes up. But, we’d take that a step further and say it’s an implicit belief that everyone has something to contribute. The Millennial generation has embraced the creation of a “shared economy ethic”, along with upending many institutional hierarchies and some institutions themselves, through disruptive ideas, disruptive technologies, and businesses based on more sharing of items and information.

This organic sense of – self as part of a collective-  when fostered, creates engaged employees who can be less focused on standing out and more inspired by being part of something larger then 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 TPJ, the Temporoparietal Junction (see research by Matthew Lieberman and others, 2013). Perhaps many Millennials can more easily activate the TPJ, and consider and comfortably engage with the perspectives of a wider diversity of others.

Entitled or Eager to Engage?

These days, some in hierarchically higher positions struggle with millennial workers who don’t seem to understand deferential communication; some say their younger colleagues are entitled or disrespectful. In addition to receiving those over-debated trophies, 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, whether messaging a friend or gaming 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 story connect with the goals.

Power-With and For All

We propose their childhood relationships and experiences helped this generation develop a different internal concept of the web of social connections that surrounds them, more “horizontal” and full of options than 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 any human system in ways that truly increase its health requires 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.

“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.” (Sarah McNee)

Embracing Uncertainty and Diversity

Being more open and inclusive means life is less predictable and we encounter more differences. Our brains function, in part, as efficient predictors, and for generations many folks have been raised to believe there is one right answer – and they feel most comfortable with certainty, order, and when things and people are as expected. 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 keys to survival. Organizations thrive on innovations that emerge from open and energized collaboration and co-creation. But being able to stay comfortable and thoughtful, in the face of differences, the unknown, and all the other forms of uncertainty we face each day, requires an update or override to our automatic nervous systems’ responding to uncertainty with discomfort or confusion, experiencing it as a stressor or a threat.

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 exposure to variety, complexity, and the capacity for ongoing seeking may have changed their reaction to uncertainty; one that is more approach than avoid. Here it is in their words:

“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 is based on a nervous system more familiar with uncertainty and differences, and less reactive, responding with flight or fight. Their process is more about social engagement with its energy of approach and curiosity. Imagine: instead of the old model of defensive reactivity where an activated amygdala and fear circuits overwhelm higher brain functioning, we would allow people to approach uncertainty with a core confidence and optimism 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. We don’t feel there are hard limits and, thus, extend our vision of what Is possible.” (Drew Seward)

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.

Judith E. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of The Creating WE Institute. She is an Organizational Anthropologist, and consults to Fortune 500 Companies. Judith is the author of 4 best-selling business books, including her newest Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion, 2013) 

Debra Pearce-McCall, PhD, is a psychologist who translates the science of mind, brain, and relating into everyday wisdom for leaders and organizations.  She’s a Senior Consultant for The Creating WE Institute.Connect with Debra.

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