Don’t Moan About Millennials: Manage Them

Silhouette of two business people gesturing and arguing in the office

Millennials. In the workplace, the very mention of the “M word” can strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned manager. After all, we are talking about the “me” generation of narcissistic employees who feel entitled and expect their opinion to be valued above all others, while also appearing unwilling to work as hard as their parents.

How do you manage such an employee—or worse, a whole team of them? And you do have to manage them. You can’t avoid them. They are everywhere. Current estimates put the number of Millennials at about 80 million in the United States alone. They threaten to make up 75 per cent of the workforce by 2030. No wonder the Millennial generation is so high on the list when it comes to discussing performance management and motivation in the workplace.

If only we could turn back the clock to when everyone at work pulled together for the greater good of the organization. Ah, those were the days, right?

But wait! Don’t head down the path of adopting this line of thought or you’ll find yourself reminiscing about how you used to walk to school every day, barefoot, through the snow, uphill both ways… and suddenly you’re a character in the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch by Monty Python.

What’s the very worst way to start a conversation with a Millennial? Begin with the words “When I was your age…” and anything that comes after that will be greeted by deaf ears and blank stares.

Now, hang on a minute. Someone from an earlier generation lamenting the shortcomings of the current generation? That can’t have ever happened before, can it? Well, only for the last 200 generations or so. It’s not just standard practice; it is the preferred modus operandi of us humans. Today’s target is a generation with a different name, but the problem is not new. Fifty years ago, the problem was labelled the “generation gap.”

Gradually, we’ve evolved to define broad characteristics for a specific generation and neatly pigeonhole all of the members of that one demographic—as if each individual embodied the characteristics of his or her cohort—under a clever term: Depression era; Baby Boomer; Generation X; Generation Z; and yes, our most current challenge, the Millennial.

As I note in my book The Performance Principle: A Practical Guide to Understanding Motivation in the Modern Workplace, we seem to be willing participants in generation-specific generalizations. We devote significant intellect and discussion to indulge in those stereotypes when they are based on the year in which an individual was born.

But, alas, there’s a little problem with broad characterizations and generalizations: they’re wrong a great deal of the time. When it comes to applying characteristics to different individuals, very few people exhibit all of the characteristics of a given stereotype, like some kind of personality-trait blanket. We know stereotyping is a mistake. We recognize it, and go out of our way to reject it, when the stereotype is based on gender, race, or ethnicity.

But how do we apply this same sensibility to Millennials? The first step is to recognize three important principles that apply to working with any individual or group of people:

  1. Don’t assume that you know what motivates another person based solely on knowing his or her birthday.
    In other words, don’t assume you know what motivates another human being. We all know and work with Millennials who work harder than some Generation Xers or Baby Boomers. And, of course, the opposite is also true. Some Millennials are less hardworking than some Generation Xers, and there is ample research available to debunk many generational stereotypes. It turns out that human beings are a bit like snowflakes—on the surface we look pretty similar, but under closer scrutiny no two of us are alike. This is certainly the case when it comes to motivation. Making broad assumptions based on stereotypes is likely to result in flawed reasoning, which can lead to failure and loss in the workplace.
  2. What motivates you is not necessarily what motivates others.
    This applies to Millennials, Baby Boomers, and giraffes. Each one of us may find different things to be reinforcing, and different things to be unpleasant or punishing. This may be the most significant element, and one that can drive a wedge between managers and the people they work with. We have an unfortunate tendency to assume that the things that drive us (or, conversely, the things that knock us down) are the same things that drive (or take down) everyone else. We deem whatever motivates us as being good, and without much thought, we create a work environment that provides all the things we find motivating, rather than taking a step back to better analyze the ideal environment. This doesn’t mean that we can’t all be aligned to achieve a common goal. But different people are likely to need different reinforcers to get them working toward that common goal. Aligning reinforcers with the common objective is essential, even though not all reinforcers are the same.
  3. There are only two ways to find out what motivates another individual: asking and observing.
    Well, technically, a third way would be to guess. But the main point of this article is that guessing is not a great approach. Although it may feel a little awkward, there is no valid reason to avoid simply asking people what motivates them. This is far more likely to provide an accurate indicator than guessing. However, we are often more idealistic about what drives us than the reality of what we are actually motivated by. Therefore, the most reliable way to learn what drives people is to observe how they behave. Actions do, in fact, speak louder than words. People may think they know what drives them, but the most reliable way to determine it is by observing how they behave and interacting within their environment.

Finally, we need to take this knowledge and incorporate it into our performance management process, clearly aligning the individual’s rewards with his or her objectives, and with the objectives of the team.

The process is simple, but it’s not easy. The biggest barrier is the time it takes to do it right. The answer to that objection is straightforward: it’s much more expensive to have high turnover and an unmotivated workforce than to invest in how you manage performance. Invest the time and reap the rewards—for the organization and for the team.

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