What Millennials Really Want When They Ask to Collaborate in the Workplace

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

When you think about Millennials and their desire to collaborate, what comes to mind? There are definitely those who paint quite the picture in their head. Xers may think that Millennials just want to sit around a campfire and hold hands, singing in unison and swaying back and forth. Others envision a room of Millennials sipping on IPAs and shouting out ideas during a brainstorm, with those thoughts all written in colorful dry-erase pens on a massive whiteboard. Yes, Millennials are a hyper-collaborative generation, but that has been a part of their cultural upbringing.

Once you deconstruct the pieces of the collaborative workplace pie, you’ll find that, ultimately, all Millennials want is to work together on a project to reach a goal. Working collaboratively is not limited to having a brainstorm session with a huge team of their peers. Collaboration can be seen when they get feedback from a manager or a peer. It’s a natural part of their mentor-mentee relationships. It occurs in-person and virtually.

Instead of writing them off as a needy, pack-minded bunch, think about what Millennials are really asking for when they ask to collaborate:

  • Millennials want the best idea to come to the fore — even if it’s not their own. As much as this generation gets the title of “narcissist” slapped on their persona, they can be incredibly humble when it comes to the workplace. That love of the group brainstorm? It’s because they know that the collective will almost always produce a better idea than the individual. They can bounce thoughts off one another, using one thought as a jumping-off point for another. Millennials truly want the best idea to win out, even if it’s not one that they dreamed up.
  • Millennials want constant feedback to know they’re on the right track. The whole “Millennials love feedback” thing is not because they’re needy, but because they want to know that they’re on the right path. It’s a “Millennials love efficiency” thing. If you give them feedback, or if they solicit feedback from their coworkers or their team, they can then course-correct before it becomes a bigger problem.
  • Millennials don’t want a babysitter; they want a coach. When they look for guidance and collaboration from their managers and leaders, they want a relationship that’s more coach and less babysitter. A babysitter hovers and watches your every move, may talk down to you, and knows he is in charge. A coach, instead, grooms you. He doesn’t scold you when you make a mistake but rather builds a path to refine your skills. It’s about bettering your Millennial employees rather than punishing them or hawking over them.
  • Millennials don’t need to collaborate with you, but they want to collaborate with someone. The onus doesn’t always lie with you to be the one to work with them. You’re busy; they get that. The pressure on you to be the collaborator can be easily alleviated by giving them a chance to collaborate with one other. Team up people who complement each other. Assign work in team-based projects when possible. Or simply assign Millennials a buddy they can check-in with if they need to run something by someone.