Exposing Some Truths About Motivating Millennials in the Workforce

Today’s piece is a guest post by Dr. Bret L. Simmons.  Bret is an Associate Professor of Management in the College of Business at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), where he teaches courses in organizational behaviour, leadership, and personal branding to both undergraduate and MBA students. You can read more of Bret’s writings on leadership, followership, and social media at his website “Positive Organizational Behavior” at BretLSimmons.com. You can also find Bret on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Are the work values of younger employees different than those of others in today’s workplace? Not as much as we’ve been lead to believe, according to new research published in the Journal of Management by Jean Twenge and her colleagues.

Generation Me (GenMe, GenY or Millennials; born 1982-1999) are more individualistic than Generation X (Gen X; born 1965-1981) and Baby Boomers (Boomers; born 1946-1964), but until now the evidence for generational differences in work values has been scant, despite the army of consultants selling “solutions” for how to manage younger workers. This new study compared the work values of high school seniors in 1976, 1991, and 2006 (N = 16,507). The values they examined were leisure (schedule flexibility and time off), intrinsic rewards (interesting work and growth opportunity), extrinsic rewards (pay and status), social rewards (make friends), and altruistic rewards (help others and society).

The study found that contrary to popular belief, GenMe did not value social and altruistic rewards more than Boomers and GenX. Intrinsic rewards were important to GenMe, but less so than for any of the previous generations. Although intrinsic values are decreasing, don’t miss the fact that the study confirmed that across all generations, intrinsic rewards ranked toward the top of all work values.

The most significant finding of the study was that relative to Gen X and Boomers, leisure is particularly important to GenMe. GenMe also values extrinsic rewards more than Boomers (Gen X ranks the highest for valuing extrinsic rewards). This means younger workers want more money and status, but do not want to work harder to get those things. These findings support the popular notion that GenMe has a sense of entitlement. This disconnect between expectations and reality is typical of the overconfidence that comes with narcissism, which separate research has shown is on the rise in GenMe (Twenge & Campbell, 2009).

The authors conclude that “the desire for leisure and a better work-life balance starts long before young workers have families, so policies should go beyond those aimed at parents needing time to share child care duties and Boomers looking to gradually enter retirement; these policies should extend to younger people who want leisure time to travel or spend with friends (pp. 1135-1136). Because leisure time is so valued, managers might do well to consider offering it as a motivational reward along with pay and promotion.

The bottom line for me is the differences between generations are not as great as we’ve been lead to believe they are. That actually did not surprise me – every generation looks at the others and sees whatever differences exist as more significant than they really are. The biggest surprise for me was the sense of entitlement in younger workers that this study seems to confirm. Acting entitled is the biggest thing GenMe is accused of, but until now the support for that claim was largely anecdotal.

Our challenge as managers will be to provide younger workers with the schedule flexibility they so strongly desire, while at the same time encouraging them to remember that to the extent they value it, achievement will only go to those that are willing to work hard. The good news is the technologies and tools available today allow all generations to work smarter and more productive than at any time in our history. I hope our leaders will allow our younger employees to teach us new ways to work that can produce results all generations will value.

Some other posts you may enjoy:

  1. Do Businesses Need the Millennials to Implement Change?
  2. 3 Steps To Help Ensure You’re Consistent With Your Message
  3. How Two Simple Words Can Energize Your Team and Grow Your Business
  4. Leadership Failure In Our Education System – Guest post at Bretlsimmons.com
  5. A Tale of Two Businesses – Some Lessons on Improving How You Manage Your Company
  6. Unravelling The Myths of Multitasking and Time Management – Part 1


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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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