Managing Military Millennials

Managing Military Millennials

Let’s face it: Millennials and Generation Z are taking over. They account for more of the talent pool every year and, as every organization should know, they are motivated differently than previous generations.

Unfortunately, many senior leaders in the business world don’t understand what younger team members value and how to get the most out of their younger professionals. This causes high turnover rates, more expensive employee retention efforts and less pro-organizational behavior. Some perceive the frequent job switching of Millennials and Gen-Zs as irrational or impulsive, but many times they simply lack leaders who can adequately motivate and challenge them.

Ironically, one of the world’s most rigidly bureaucratic organizations – the United States Military – discovered effective ways to motivate Gen Z. The US military is at the forefront of understanding younger generations because it hires, onboards and trains more than 150,000 young people from all over the country every year. Their leadership has helped maintain an unparalleled force of readiness and provides several lessons for civilian leaders of every organization.

Military leaders seek to understand their people, learn what they value and use their talents to accomplish missions. After briefly considering what makes Gen Z different, we’ll explore organizational and individual approaches the military uses to effectively motivate Gen Z and provide a few concrete examples that business leaders can emulate.

Who Are These People?

First, it’s key to understand younger generations. Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) have experienced a lot in a short period. They saw the “dot com bubble”, 9/11 started two wars, and the housing market crashed right when they were trying to build wealth. Not to mention the technological revolution redefined how they engage with their colleagues, social circles and the market. As a result of their experiences, it makes sense Millennials are confident and self-reliant and value collaboration and career advancement (Özçelik, 2015).

Generation Z (born between 1996 and 2015) are unique since they’re the first generation to be bombarded with technology from birth. They never had to get a ride from their parents to the skating rink or arcade to see friends. For Gen-Z, technology has replaced the clunky old ways of socializing and made it largely internet-based. As a result, one study found that they’re less likely to get a driver’s license, go on a date or go to the bar with their friends than previous generations. Since the average Gen-Z member will see 200,000 online and TV advertisements before graduating high school, they value authenticity and purpose more than any other generation (Reid, 2018).

As a result of how these two generations came to fruition, they have distinct values that leaders can understand and use to benefit an organization. Millennials are collaborative, driven to succeed and want to experience all that life has to offer. Generation Z values authentic environments and an organization’s mission. Also, both of these groups value company culture, a strong sense of identity and purpose, and they are basically intent on saving the world. This is crucial to understand. Cash may still be king, but culture is in command. The military understands this, and they’ve been able to create an attractive environment for younger generations at both the organization and personal level.

Innovation Through Dissent

One critical way the military motivates younger generations at an organizational level is through its recent emphasis on allowing individuals to pursue truth through innovation-focused organizations. While there are examples of individual innovation peppered throughout military history, innovation has been less organizationally encouraged until recently. For example, disruptive thinking Millennial junior officers returned from deployments overseas and refused to accept stale answers and sub-optimal solutions to some of our nation’s critical security challenges. Their writings and actions spawned a slew of innovation organizations and competitions including DoD’s Hack the Pentagon, the Air Force’s Spark Tank Competition, the Navy’s Athena Project and the Marine Commandant’s Innovation Challenge. Not to be outdone, the Army exerted significant organizational resources to establish a permanent innovation lab (Army Futures Command) to modernize the Army.

Companies that deliberately foster employee innovation can harness the inquisitive, purpose-based outlook of Millennials and Gen-Zs while focusing their efforts to improve the organization. Corporate leaders can learn from the military’s willingness to foster innovation, especially if their current approach is not working. At their core, innovators like our younger professionals are creative truth seekers. They want to be able to make meaningful contributions that improve the world around them.

Culture In Command

At the individual level, the military created an atmosphere of shared accountability, teamwork and a sense of identity that resonated well with our younger generations. Marine Corps leaders build cohesion and identity through knowing what motivates their people, creating challenging scenarios and inducing competition.

Military leaders know their people and what motivates them. They leverage talents and interests to accomplish a mission instead of relying solely on scores and observation, which boosts morale and productivity. The second-order effect here is reciprocity, where the team members feel a sense of gratitude and indebtedness to their leader. There’s little translation needed here – get to know your people and what they want and be creative on how to provide that while meeting a company goal. You’ll be surprised at the kind of response you get from our younger generation.

Another way military leaders have been able to build purpose, identity and commitment in younger generations is by creating challenging scenarios to train them. Challenging scenarios spark creativity, force individuals to rely on others and build leadership skills among their subordinates. It also provides a great opportunity for an individual to showcase unique skillsets. A close friend is a Marine Reconnaissance Company Commander and described his approach:

“The first critical step is figuring out where you want your team to be better. Define the ideal state, then challenge the team to achieve it through adversity like inability to talk, restrictive timelines, etc. Get creative on this adversity you’re building. Continue to change one variable at a time as they get better through multiple training iterations. Finally, make sure you create scenarios where the team cannot succeed without working together.”

His last point is the most important: When you create a challenging scenario where individuals must rely on one another to succeed, you force them to ignore biases and opinions. The team members learn how to contribute their special skills, engage in groupthink and experience how their teamwork has an exponential effect on their collective performance. As a result, their in-group tribalism grows in a healthy way and the team builds vital intangible traits like implicit communication and empathy to understand one another. Ironically, individuals build self-confidence and social capital despite it being a team environment. One business example is to have your team complete a project while relying only on message boards and chat rooms without being able to speak to one another verbally. Introducing a time restriction can also add training value.

Finally, inducing competition is another great way military leaders motivate young generations, especially those collaborative Millennials. For example, Marine units often compete with other units to see who’s stronger, faster or can shoot better. When preparing for competition, Marines within the unit become closer and are united through their hatred for losing and their temporary disdain for the competition. This fosters a sense of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls pathological dualism, where the Marines develop an “us vs. them” mentality. During the competition, individuals are extremely dedicated to one another and work to defeat their opponent. Communication improves, skills are sharpened and morale skyrockets. This also drives the concepts of identity, meaning and purpose further home – which was the intent the whole time.

Creating friendly competition between teams in your organization can bring team members closer together, build camaraderie and morale and give your people a chance to shine. You’re giving a young Millennial or Gen-Z’er the chance to showcase their talent, learn something new, contribute to something greater than themselves and potentially reap a reward. Also, if you get creative with the incentives, you can provide a way for your teams to contribute to a charitable organization, improve the community or benefit the environment. It’s just like the first rule of economics: People respond to incentives. In this case, pick the ones your young team members value.

Millennials and Gen-Z’ers will continue to expand their influence in our business world. They don’t solely value money. They value intangibles such as purpose, company identity, improving the world, collaboration and overall experience. These factors have a strong impact on their decision to join (or stay) with a company. Leaders should seek to understand what younger people value and how to provide that, both inside and outside the workplace. We can also get creative in teambuilding since happy hours or bonus metrics aren’t the main motivators for younger folks.

Challenge them to work together. Give them the chance to prove themselves through competition. And finally, get to know them so you can provide value beyond the paycheck.

This article originally appeared on

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Along with this influx of young managers comes a shift in the role of manager itself. Managers are no longer only focused on making sure work gets done, but also on how and why it gets done. They are expected to be detail-oriented and strategic, to build culture and ensure productivity. And their position is also pivotal for employee engagement: A recent Gallup poll found that managers accounted for 70% of variance in employee engagement.

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1. Your organization’s culture will impact what kind of talent you attract.

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