Why Millennials Don't Want To Lead – And How To Fix It

Thuy Sindell

You offered a leadership position to one of your most promising young employees, and they turned it down. You can’t believe what just happened! You explain that this is an important and logical step in developing a career, and it would be a great learning experience. But it didn’t matter – your handpicked employee isn’t interested.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a one-time experience. A recent ManpowerGroup survey found that only six percent of millennials want to be leaders, and just four percent want to manage others. You may believe that a leadership position is a great opportunity, but millennials are thinking something totally different.

Comfort with leadership roles is a matter of preparedness

A management position is a huge responsibility. However, when millennials are told about the great growth potential and amazing things it can do for their career, all they can think about is how unprepared they are for the position. In fact, 63% of millennials surveyed by Deloitte said their leadership skills aren’t being fully developed. Even if your company currently invests in leadership development, your millennial employees still don’t see the opportunities ahead. So, instead of watching their performance tank and disappointing both you and their team, they decline the opportunity.

If you wait to introduce leadership development to employees until after they’ve been promoted to a management position, it’s too late. By closing the leadership gap and offering development opportunities to all employees,  even those who are just starting their careers and aren’t interested in a future in leadership, employees (especially the growing millennial workforce) will feel well-prepared to take on the new role.

The challenge of leading older generations

Millennials may be the largest generation in the workplace, but they still need to work side by side with baby boomers and Gen X. For years, millennials have dealt with older employees judging them, questioning how they complete their work, and complaining about the attitudes of younger workers. Considering that Generation X and baby boomers surveyed by Workfront rated millennials as the least cooperative generation, the least likely to take responsibility, and the biggest complainers, this picture isn’t an exaggeration.

So when you ask millennial employees to lead these same co-workers, it’s not hard to understand why they would turn down the offer. Especially since these judgments only get worse for leaders. A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that younger managers face a heightened risk of being rejected by employees and peers because of their perceived lack of expertise and status. It’s no wonder more than one-third of millennials surveyed by Future Workplace and Beyond.com said leading older generations is difficult.

Millennials need mentors and coaches, not managers and senior leaders who look down on them. By encouraging younger employees to find a mentor within the organization and ask older employees to share their knowledge, millennials can take advantage of the opportunity to further leadership development. Now your millennial leader will feel supported by the organization, instead of fighting against it.

The perceived lack of leadership’s impact

Even if millennial employees decline a management position, they are still thinking about their career growth. In the ManpowerGroup survey, 21% of millennials said that making a positive impact is a top career priority – and leadership doesn’t seem like the best way to do that.

There’s a steep divide in how employees and management view their leadership style and company culture. A survey published in July 2016 by VitalSmarts found that while leaders think they’re promoting innovation, creativity, and collaboration, employees are much more likely to think their culture values competition, deference to authority, and predictability. All too often, senior leadership is reluctant to listen to new ideas and is much more stuck in their ways. Millennials know what changes they want to make, but have no real voice in whether those ideas are actualized.

The evidence is clear: Leaders must show millennials that they do have the power to innovate and have a real impact on the organization. Listen to their suggestions and take their ideas seriously. Don’t write off their opinions because they have less experience. Consider their ideas as you would for more senior employees. Then, present leadership roles as an opportunity to take these ideas to the next level – to innovate and implement changes on a larger scale.

It’s time to recalibrate the leadership balance

While leadership is a bigger responsibility, millennials are about making a lasting impact – not increasing their time commitment. They want flexible schedules and a better work-life balance. In fact, an overwhelming 82% of millennials surveyed by FlexJobs ranked work-life balance as the most important factor when evaluating a job prospect. However, when you start leadership development early, mentor employees, and listen to them, they’ll be much more receptive to management positions.

Have you ever had an employee turn down a leadership opportunity? Share your stories in the comments below!

For more hiring strategies for the digital economy, see Attracting And Retaining The Elusive Millennial.


Thuy Sindell

About Thuy Sindell

Thuy Sindell is a principal in Skyline Group International, Inc., Skyline Group is the leading provider of scalable leadership solutions with a foundation built upon decades of executive coaching with some of the most recognized companies in the world. Skyline is revolutionizing the leadership development industry with the C4X coaching platform. C4X is the only coaching solution that gives you the ability to develop all leaders consistently and systematically from onboarding to executive development. C4X combines a flexible and mobile technology platform (integrated assessment, personalized content, metrics, and coach management system) with the impact and connection of 1:1 coaching. Learn more at www.SkylineG.com and www.C4X.com.