“How do we motivate Millennials?” It seems every client has asked this question recently, and you can’t pick up a business magazine without seeing some article related to this question. In an attempt to separate wheat from chaff, we looked at some of the recent research to see if we could glean a few insights and suggestions for action here.
The September 2015 issue of the Journal of Industrial and Organizational Psychology presented several articles covering a variety of points of view, but no hard data to speak of. The observations represented were about equally divided between the “There’s no there there – these are normal age-related differences” and the “There really are differences in this generation due to a variety of unusual factors.” Recent surveys (PEW, KPMG and PWC, among others) offer insights about possible generational differences in attitudes and approach to work between Millennials and other cohorts. For purposes of this discussion, Millennials (sometimes referred to as Gen Y), are people who were born roughly between 1980 and 2000. Some of the apparent differences between Millennials and other cohorts can be attributed to the normal age-related factors. However, there are several unique environmental forces that may indeed reflect genuine variances unique to this group.
Factors and characteristics likely to shape their outlook
This is the first generation to be born into the digital age. They didn’t have to learn the new technology. They have much greater comfort with it than the Boomers. Their median friend count on social media is 250, and 55% of them have posted a selfie. These figures are much higher than those of the other generations.
They experience more financial challenge than other generations. Globalization (loss of jobs), debt from school loans and a long recession have made their early working lives more difficult than recent generations.
They are less focused on institutions and on making society better than previous generations. But, paradoxically, they’re more optimistic about the future. They’re less trusting in general and more self-focused.
They will work hard, but more to achieve their own needs and goals. They will put in the hours, but they want flexibility and control of their own time. They don’t feel the need to work from the office, and for the most part, see their first jobs more as a way to make money for their other interests.
Many of them have been coddled like no other generation. This may have served to make them less realistic in their outlook (55% of those surveyed in one study indicated that they aspire to be a CEO). They are products of the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy and possibly more than a few of them have suffered from the self-esteem movement. That is, they may feel too good about themselves without having actually earned self-esteem through achievement. This means that a subset of them will have unrealistic expectations, possibly more so than can be explained by youth and inexperience.
A question posed by the recent Pew poll revealed remarkably consistent attitudes towards Millennials across the three demographics (baby boomers, GenX and Millennials themselves). All groups agreed on the biggest complaints in managing Millennials: they have a sense of entitlement; they lack focus; they spend too much time with technology. Although there may be agreement about what’s “wrong” with this generation, there is not much real research to tease out actual generational effects from general characteristics of youth. Of course the technology adds a very different set of dynamics now than previous generations encountered, but the rest is up for discussion.
One thing to consider is the fact that the frontal cortex is not fully mature until the mid-twenties. Most researchers think that this is the area of the brain housing executive functions (including general maturation, impulse control, reasoning, planning and decision-making). It may be that much of what we perceive as generational differences is due to normal human development.
What are they likely to want?
Basic human needs and expectations are likely to trump generational characteristics when it comes to big things. There are three overarching motivations shared by all people:
First, wehave strong motivations to perceive reality accurately so we can respond in our best interests. We need to stay alert and interpret things correctly so that we gain some advantage, or so that we don’t lose something. This is the accuracy goal. It causes us to be alert to what others are thinking and doing and is an underlying mechanism for the influence of groups on individuals. We often look to others (authority figures or members of groups with which we identify) to figure out how they perceive and respond to things to get clues as to how we should behave. We want to know what’s going on and what’s expected.
Second, we are motivated to build and maintain meaningful social relationships. This affiliation goal is important even to strongly introverted people. Effective social networks are often literally the keys to survival. We tend to act in ways to gain the approval of others who are important to us. This is a fundamental motivation. It explains why we ingratiate ourselves to others, and why we follow the norms of our reference groups. If we are accepted and liked, we have better chances for survival.
Third, we have a strong need to maintain a positive image of ourselves. This goal of consistency explains why we will often go to great lengths to behave in ways we perceive as congruent. It also explains why we can be very clever at finding ways to fool ourselves and rationalize apparent inconsistencies. We have a strong need to avoid the internal stress (cognitive dissonance) we would otherwise feel. Dissonance reduction is an important component in maintaining a positive image of consistency.
Most normal people want to feel they are contributing in a meaningful way to a worthwhile endeavor. They like clear goals to help them gain a sense of control and mastery over their environment. They want interesting work, reward based on contribution and the opportunity to be successful. They want to know how they are doing, and how they can be more successful.
Although there are differences across generations, individual differences are always larger than cross-generational differences. And commonalities trump both individual and generational differences. In general, communications will be most effective when we focus on what we have in common.
With the above for context, here are some general observations about some of the things that will be important to many Millennials, and some ideas about managing and leading them.
For their early jobs, they will probably be more focused on work as a way to get money to do the things they like to do outside the job. As with many people in other generations when they were younger, they tend to see jobs as a means to an end and as a way to help them pursue their interests. They want to earn enough to have fun. They like to know what they have to do to earn enough to live the way they want. Promises of promotions aren’t as motivating at this point.
They are used to working in groups and therefore likely to enjoy the chance to interact with other like-minded people. They are generally comfortable working together on projects. Give them challenges (not responsibilities) to work on in teams. Give them a chance to network. Let them work together in a “learning team” format for problem solving when possible.
They typically want more of a mentor than a boss, but they like to have a roadmap for success and advancement. They value independence and flexibility, and are likely to actively or passively resist close supervision or micromanagement. They want to complete their assigned tasks in their own way.
They want to express their individualism, and to be seen as individuals. Being lumped into the broad classification of “Millennials” will probably not be the best way to foster their engagement.
They want to work in a friendly, supportive atmosphere and to be given positive feedback. Negative critique may often be more effective couched as a roadmap towards greater success, rather than as “here’s how you screwed up.” Paint the picture of what success will look like in your eyes. Frequent and supportive feedback is more effective than the annual review.
As long as they have clarity of mission and goals, letting them work together to figure out how to accomplish the task can be a powerful tool for success. But don’t expect the solution to be that they’re on site nine-to-five every day. They want control of their schedules and flexibility. They are used to using technology, so allow them to do so to the maximal extent possible.
The jury is out regarding the effects of generational cohort versus normal human maturation on the attitudes of Millennials towards work, and towards life in general. While the observations and suggestions presented above may offer a few insights and tools for managing them, it will probably be more effective to focus on solid and consistent managerial and leadership practices, regardless of the generational mix on the floor. Below are some proven strategies for effective leadership for any generation, but especially for Millennials:
Goal clarity, and worthiness of the goal, are essential to keeping people moving in the right direction. The company’s mission and values provide the context for work, and the specific goals provide the focus. People need to understand what is expected, and that what they’re doing is worthwhile. They will work best when they understand the reasons for what they’re being asked to do.
Resources to enable people to achieve the goal are crucial. Of course innovation can leverage their efforts, but they expect their leaders to provide them the tools they need to be successful.
Clear and supportive feedback helps people understand how they’re doing. Feedback is often most effective when presented as “here’s what you did well and here’s what you need to do better” rather than the more punitive “you messed up by doing this” format.
People work best when they have a sense of control. When there is a new challenge, let them have as much influence on how it will be handled as possible. This can take the following form:
* Here’s what we need to accomplish, this is why we need to do it, and this is the deadline.
* Here are the standards our solution needs to meet.
* These are the checkpoints – when you need to give me progress reports and when I’ll check up on you.
* Here’s where I can be reached. I expect you to call immediately when you need something.
No matter what the generation, people respond to reinforcement for doing a good job. Some people like recognition, some like tangible reward, many Millennials are likely to enjoy time off, etc. The nature of the reinforcement depends on the person, so leaders need to make sure they understand each of their people and their unique motivational structure.
In the end, there are no magic answers. People in all generations are more similar than different, and every generation has had complaints about the next one. However, there do appear to be unique factors, aside from the normal maturational stages, that shape the attitudes and behaviors of Millennials. Be that as it may, we should probably spend the bulk of our time and effort focusing more on commonalities and on the things everyone needs rather than strategizing about how to deal with real or perceived generational differences.
Hodges L. Golson, PhD