Psychology Today

By Judith E. Glaser Co-authored by Debra Pearce-McCall, Ph.D. | Psychology Today and Huffington Post
Published: June 9, 2017

Sloughing off millennial myths reveals the millennial "possibility" mindset.

With their deep comfort with uncertainty and technology, coupled with their hardwired sense of inclusion, Millennials are blazing the trail by transforming workplaces. When used well, technological connections facilitate extended conversations and build trusting relationships transcending time and space, with all the potential this unleashes. The future leaders of this relationship network, where the world is connected in ways that shift our minds and brains, are the Millennials. Consider this: How might the Millennial generation be riding the next wave of human evolution?

Putting to test our hypothesis that Millennials have been mislabeled, we brought together some Millennials from IBM to get their best current thinking, and through ‘asking questions for which they have no answers’ and ‘listening to connect’—which are CreatingWE Institute’s approaches to deeper conversations—we learned about Millennials’ evolving mindsets:

“I feel IBM fosters a culture of collaboration and being part of a team - that you're not trying to one up everyone else or get ahead while other people fall behind, it's more of lifting everybody up together… I’ve never met a millennial who is just all for themselves and is unwilling to help anybody else.” (Austin Root)

“We believe that the best ideas don’t necessarily come from a leader. They come from different parts of an organization and from around the world.” (Drew Seward)

“We’re entrepreneurial, communicative, and collaborative. We’ve grown up in the generation that communicates and is transparent.” (Lexie Komisar)

Deconstructing our Biases

Our view of the Millennial Mindset is based on the new understanding of our social brains, and how our neural patterns and our minds develop in response to lived experiences. Our focus, Conversational Intelligence Researchers, led us to ask: How might experiences common to a significant number in this generation impact their social brain development, their mindsets, and how they relate in the workplace? We chose to slough off some typical and often negatively inflected Millennial Myths, and consider ways that the Millennials’ childhood experiences may have harnessed positive neuroplasticity and shaped their mindsets to enable them to adapt, and even thrive in our rapidly changing world. With an open, fresh perspective, let’s explore the powers of what we are calling the Millennial Possibility Mindset.

“I think Millennials have a lot to share; I think all different generations inside the company have a lot to share, and it's about us drawing from our collective experiences, and history…it's about learning and having conversations, because that's actually how you create thriving, open, organizations.” (Laura Vang)

Interestingly, no one in the IBM group felt generational ownership of the term Millennial. Instead, they were sure that anyone, of any age, could share their perspectives. This sense of inclusiveness is the first adaptive mind quality we will highlight as we consider The Millennial Possibility Mindset.

Quality #1: Sharing Our Worlds

The upside of “everyone gets a trophy” is an implicit belief that everyone has something to contribute. This 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)

Quality #2: 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, even evolving into a new perception of and response to “not knowing,” one that is more approach than avoid.

“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 rides on a nervous system made more familiar with uncertainty and differences, and therefore experiencing less of the sympathetic arousal response of flight/fight and more of the social engagement response with its energy of approach and curiosity. Imagine how having this (instead of the old model of defensive reactivity where an activated amygdala and fear circuits overwhelm higher brain functioning) 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.

Debra Pearce-McCall, PhD, is a psychologist who translates the science of mind, brain, and relating into everyday wisdom for leaders and organizations. Her private consultations and group facilitations are engaging and impactful, and consistently create sustainable transformations. She’s a Senior Consultant for The Creating WE Institute. Connect with Debra.

Judith E. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of The CreatingWE Institute; an Organizational Anthropologist, consultant to Fortune 500 Companies, and author of four best-selling business books, including Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results.; Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 212-307-4386.


Creating Buzz: The Neural Correlates of Effective Message Propagation.   Emily B. Falk, Sylvia A. Morelli, B. Locke Welborn, Karl Dambacher, Matthew D. Lieberman. Psychological Science, Vol 24, Issue 7, pp. 1234 – 1242. First published date: May-30-2013. 10.1177/095679761247467

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