Understanding the Millennial Mindset of Collaboration

By Hannah L. Ubl, Lisa X. Walden, Debra Arbit

When Millennials were in their formative years, there was a perfect storm of messaging that drilled this idea: “Teamwork makes the dream work.” Collaboration was held up as an ideal. Every adult in Millennials’ lives encouraged them to put their heads together and tap into the power of the collective.

Millennials collaborate in the classroom

In school, Millennials learned that the best results were achieved not when they did solo work, but when they were part of a team of collaborators. They grew accustomed to group projects, working on assignments that benefited from the melding of different strengths.

After school, parents carted Millennial kids back and forth to various sports and clubs — be it basketball, soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, debate team, drama club, or whatever team activity was in season. They wanted their kids to learn to play well with others, and participating in team-based activities (however bad you were at dribbling or remembering lines) was yet another way to expose their kids to the group dynamic.

Millennials collaborate with adults

But Millennials weren’t just collaborating with other peers. They were learning to interact in this way with people in positions of authority as well. Every sphere of Millennial life functioned more like an open and encouraging democracy than a tiered authoritarian system (one that Boomers and Xers were more used to).

At home, Millennials saw their family as a unit, a team where they were not the bottom of the barrel, but active contributors. At school, teachers went out of their way not to be strict disciplinarians, but to be approachable to every student. Guidance counselors asked children to speak up and share their ideas. Adults didn’t want to belittle children or make them feel like they didn’t matter.

They wanted the next generation to feel confident in themselves, and pushed them to be bold, share their thoughts, and collaborate with the people around them, whether that be with their fellow second-grader or the teacher himself.

Collaboration with a virtual sphere

When social media debuted, it only made it easier for Millennials to extend their collaborative mindsets into the virtual world. Physical barriers were no longer an obstacle, because now even if they were sitting in a room at home by themselves, they were armed with the tools to collaborate virtually. Since the mid ’90s, technology for collaborative work has only become more and more sophisticated. The youngest Millennials are so used to collaborating using FaceTime and Google Docs that, for them, it’s almost as good as collaborating in person.

There are many people who value collaboration at work, but only to a point. At a certain level, a collaborative instinct can come across as needy, cowardly for fear of speaking independently, and inefficient. In one of the most negative ways, it can seem that collaboration equals groupthink. By definition, groupthink, in a sense, means that consensus is reached at the sacrifice of creativity and innovation. But creativity and innovation are positive qualities that Millennials are known for. Their collaboration is used to enhance creativity, not stifle it.

Parents, teachers, technology, pop culture, you name it — the tune was consistent: You are stronger together than you are alone. Here is an overview of some of the contributing factors that created this highly collaborative generation:

  • The parenting:
    • Millennial kids were told they were an important, contributing member of the family and that they should speak up and share their opinions.
    • Eldest child, baby of the family, girl, boy — it didn’t matter. Parents told their kids that everyone’s unique voice mattered when making family decisions.
    • Boomer parents wanted their kids to “play nice” and enrolled them in sporting activities where the objective was less about winning, and more about being a part of the team (hence, the participation award trend).
  • The schooling:
    • Millennial children grew up working on collective, group-based projects.
    • They learned to lean on each other and found safety in the buddy system or latchkey (the supervised after-school program).
    • Funding for after-school programs spiked in the mid ’90s, further promoting group activities.
  • The technology:
    • The Internet opened the world to collaborative gaming.
    • From chat rooms to Facebook to Yelp, social media created a platform for “hanging out” with your friends, and crowdsourcing ideas and opinions.
    • Online tools allowed for virtual collaboration so that you didn’t have to be physically present to be able to tap into the power of collaboration.
  • The headlines:
    • They say there is nothing quite as unifying as a common enemy, and the tragedy of 9/11 served as a unifying, rallying cry against the horrors and injustice of terrorism.
    • The fear of school shootings encouraged students to stick together and not ostracize any member of the community.
    • Captain Planet, Bill Nye, Fern Gully — programming encouraged kids to rally as a generation against climate change and promoted the idea that only by combining their voices could they make a difference.
  • The pop culture:
    • Girl groups and boy bands exploded during their formative years, everything from Backstreet Boys to Spice Girls to Destiny’s Child — groups were in.
    • Group casting was trendy among popular TV shows: Boy Meets World, Saved by the Bell, Friends, Seinfeld, The Real World.
    • Arguably the most famous hero of all time, Harry Potter, only became as such because of his team. He couldn’t do it alone. Contrast his hero trope to the Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games, who defines the next generation.

Past to present: How the effects of Millennial collaboration manifest in the workplace now

Millennials will

  • Desire collaborative, team-based projects
  • Feel no hesitation collaborating with leadership as well as colleagues
  • More easily accept diverse collaborators to the group
  • Be very open to mentorship programs, but will expect to contribute something themselves to the partnership
  • Possibly struggle making decisions without consulting the collective
  • Want to build consensus among the group