Motivating Different Generations in the Workplace

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 4th August 2016

Much has been written about ‘Generation Y’ – or ‘Millennials’ as many call them – exploring how organisations need to adapt their style or even design jobs to suit them. OK, I get that. However, it raises a major point, which is that actually every generation needs to be managed in a way that suits them. A child of the MTV generation is every bit as different from a baby boomer as a millennial is from a Generation X.

So what should leaders do to differentiate and motivate each generation?

Of course, some things are universal. All staff want to feel valued and to have interesting work. All want to feel fairly treated and rewarded. However, what those things look like might be very different.

As a leader, you need to be equipped to understand what the motivators are for each of your people. Several studies show that the differences in productivity and creativity between the happy and unhappy, the engaged and the disaffected, can be hundreds of percent.

A number of theories are worth considering, and may help you to be an effective, motivating and inspiring leader for all of your people.

Your idea of motivation

Start by considering your view of motivation: do you believe that all staff deserve praise and recognition for a job well done? Do you believe that people work more effectively and creatively when they are properly engaged with their work and with you? Do you see yourself as a leader or a manager – or even a supervisor? Each of these terms suggest different attitudes and purposes. My contention is that this is about your intent, not your job title. In the 21st century, being a manager or a supervisor is not enough. We need you to lead.

Be honest with yourself here. If you are (secretly or openly) one of those Theory X leaders that think people should be grateful to have a job and that recognition is for wimps, then this is going to be challenging for you. Even a senior staff member who has been with your firm for 30+ years, who might well just ‘get on with it’ due to their work ethic and lower expectation of recognition, will still respond to the right motivation by raising their game and gaining increased enjoyment from their work.

How to engage your team members

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Happiness across the generations

Happiness – now there’s a topic to divide the generations. Baby boomers and even Generation X were typically taught to believe that work was a necessary evil, and something you had to do to pay the bills. The baby boomers (born in the 50s and 60s) grew up in a culture where men were the primary breadwinners. Men were taught to get a job, earn as much as they could, and do as much overtime as possible to put food on the table. A very different world from the experiences of Generation X, and a completely alien one for Millennials.

Baby boomers were expected to do a job they probably didn’t like, but which paid sufficiently well, often in a firm where they were largely ignored or treated as ‘drones’ with minimal holidays and few employment rights or protections. For them, being happy at work was not a priority, as long as the work was secure. They might take pride in their skills and experience and take satisfaction from being viewed as a mentor, a coach or a provider of accumulated wisdom. They may expect to be consulted on and given the chance to influence change and improvement.

Generation X (born between the mid-60s early 80s) saw a sea-change in employment protection with the impact of unfair dismissal and anti-discrimination legislation, the rise of HR and the growth of specialist and technology-based job roles, where skills were in scarce supply and the power transferred to the employee. They will often be enthused by the chance to progress, learn new skills, and develop their capabilities in readiness for future growth.

Millennials, on the other hand (many of whom are digital natives who have grown up with technology in their hands from pre-school age) are connected as part of a wide – even global – community, possessed of multiple-intelligences that enable them to multi-task across a range of platforms. In return, this has given them increasingly short attention spans, and an expectation of being engaged and recognized from day one. They are unlikely to be happy with a job that has many routine tasks and is constrained by rules. Their expectations may be best fulfilled by providing a flexible, creative role with elements of ‘game’ thinking. Their expectation may be to leave after a couple of years, and so they will respond well to rapid career development and training.

Considering your approach

In summary, think about the teams and people you lead: what lights their fire? What piques their interest? What engages and unleashes their creativity? What makes them happy?

Shawn Achor has some amusing things to say about this in his TED talk. Everyone has different ‘buttons’, but as a leader you need to be aware of what they are for each team and individual. These thoughts about generational differences just give you some clues to start you off.

This is no small thing. Think deeply and lead wisely.

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