How Do You Motivate Millennials?

by Gary Markle

Answer: The same way you motivate anyone else

How many employees do you have to talk to if you want to figure out how best to energize and engage an entire company? To put the question in more academic terms, what’s the optimum sample size you need to make statistically valid logical inferences about a larger population? Let’s say you’ve got a thousand employees. Collecting data from ten seems too small. But sampling 500 is clearly too many. Larger sample sizes are said to increase precision, although they also escalate the cost of the query.

When I was in graduate school, I remember spending a good deal of time studying sampling techniques. There was even a mathematical formula for calculating the proper proportion to sample for an empirical study.

The good news is that most of us in the business world aren’t doing empirical studies for publication in an academic journal. More importantly, I think the answer to the question about sample size is determined without needing a refresher in advanced mathematics.


To energize and engage employees, the correct sample size is one

The correct generalization pool is also one. Just because I was born a “Baby Boomer” does not mean I think like those who arrived on this planet between 1946 and 1964. In fact, the whole idea of generational generalizations is almost comical if you really think about it.

In a recent cover story in HR Executive, columnist Will Bunch discussed popular strategies for “engaging Generation Y.” Also called “Millennials,” Gen Yers are considered people born between 1980 and 1995. That’s a fifteen-year time span. In the same article, he shared best practices for dealing with this new and growing segment of our workforce, Bunch also noted a Towers Watson survey of more than three million employees that revealed “in many key measures – including their interest in corporate social responsibility and desire for more training opportunities – the difference between Gen Yers and their older co-workers is minimal.”

In other words, lumping fifteen years of people into a single pool makes observations about the class relatively meaningless.

While it is intuitively obvious that people born at different times think differently, it is also true that people born at the same time do too. The idea that you can motivate a very large population by treating everyone the same is bad advice. We would suggest quite the opposite.


Stop treating all employees the same way — including millennials

From a global HR strategy standpoint, perhaps this sounds scary and dangerous. My experience over the course of several decades, however, is that treating individuals as unique human beings is actually less risky than treating them as amorphous “human resources.”

While HR cannot expect to get to know all individuals on a personal level, we can teach our managers how to do so. We can also help create and structure conversations between manager/direct report dyads that will greatly increase the likelihood that bonding will take place.

I’ve been using a process called “Catalytic Coaching” for nearly 25 years now. A replacement for traditional performance evaluations, it involves three short forms in four kinds of meetings that take about five hours per person per year. No labels. No grades. Just a highly individualized, structured two-way dialogue between a direct report and an immediate manager/supervisor.

Catalytic Coaching speeds the pace of significant change when there is a performance gap. The goal is to work performance problems faster and spend less time with bad employees so you can spend more time with good ones. The system is scalable to organizations of any size and easily auditable by HR and senior management.

An approach like this doesn’t rely on generational stereotyping. Instead, it motivates people by engaging with them as individuals. Each person is treated as one of a kind. Harsh realities and disconnects are dealt with quickly. Talented people are coached and challenged harder than their less ambitious (but well-functioning) peers. They need this to rise to their ultimate potential. Job assignments are distributed based on individual passion and strengths, while weaknesses are designed around. The whole organization performs on a higher plane when each individual is energized and engaged on a personal level.


Four ways you can motivate just about anyone

  1. Scrap Evaluations: End the outdated practice of grading and labeling employees like school children. Consider a more empowering process like Catalytic Coaching.
  2. Common Sense: Take generational studies with a grain of salt. Enjoy the collective wisdom without gaining a false sense of what it takes to motivate people as individuals.
  3. Get Personal: Teach managers and supervisors to both permit and encourage direct reports to discuss personal issues that inevitably overlap with their business lives. Help them do this both safely and compassionately.
  4. Oversee Effectiveness: Find a way for HR to audit career and performance management interactions between employees and those to whom they report. Energage Coach, which utilizes the Catalytic Coaching process, allows HR to ensure conversations are being staged, and to get a good feel for the quality of those engagement attempts.

 So … you want to know how to motivate millennials? Here’s your answer: one at a time.

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