Unfortunately, this more-than-half-a-century-old explanation needs some serious updating. Imagine yourself in Joan’s situation. She’s a competent manager with twenty some direct reports. In one of her first management development classes, she learned that her workers fall into four categories, and that if she knows which one, she will know how to motivate them. “A breakthrough!” she thought. Well, there’s nothing like labeling to simplify human behavior.
Joan discovered from the workshop that she has an employee from the Silent Generation—those born before 1946. He plans to retire next year. He’s anything but silent so she wondered if Jim was born a few years premature. In any case, as a Silent, Jim just needs to keep busy so he’ll feel like he’s accomplishing something. Joan figures he must already be motivated because she always has something for him to do—no gains to be had there.
Joan’s workshop also told her about the Baby Boomers in her department. She learned that they value loyalty, and if you can make them feel you are loyal to them, they will be loyal in return. So, she tries everyday to say things like, “Management knows you workers are our most valuable assets.” Despite all her efforts, however, Joan doesn’t feel she’s quite connecting with them. Maybe it has something to do with that annual layoff that occurs every December. Hmm…
Gen X-ers comprise about half of Joan’s group. Now there’s an opportunity. They don’t seem to have much of a work ethic and some complain about not having enough time off to socialize. So Joan lets them take long lunches and lots of breaks. Even though it’s against company policy, she lets them accumulate extra hours here and there for an occasional day off. The workshop leader said it would motivate them to work harder, but for some reason, her production numbers have been slipping.
Also in Joan’s group are several Generation Y folks. They’re a younger crowd always asking about when they’ll get promoted. They say what’s on their minds, can be a bit impertinent at times, and have no regard for work procedures. Promotions are few and far between, so the idea of getting promoted every six months is crazy. The work is fairly routine, and quality control demands that production rules are followed. Regrettably, the workshop leader didn’t tell class members what to do in this case.
To get better at motivating her employees, Joan figured she would meet with each employee and ask what is most important to them. She didn’t get very far. Maybe it had something to do with the number, but by the thirteenth employee, she was ready to tear her hair out. One employee wanted public recognition, several only cared about money, some wanted promotions, others special parking, and still others more time off. What a nightmare! It seemed impossible to give them all what they wanted, and the generational thing just didn’t help.
Fortunately for Joan, she read an article from a wise, old consultant who explained how the differences that exist between generations and individuals make better magazine articles than strategies for leading. Sure, differences exist, but they’re not what drive real motivation. A seven-year study by the Center for Creative Leadership recently validated what many have known for years, that what really matters to people is how they are treated.
It turns out that all people want to be treated with respect and valued for what they do. They all want to be able to trust their supervisors and be trusted. They want to be able to say what’s on their minds without fear and treated like equals regardless of title. They want the truth, not some varnished version of it. They want to see how what they accomplish at work is meaningful in a broader sense, and that what they do makes an important contribution. They want opportunities to grow and develop so they can build their capabilities to contribute and function according to their own intrinsic motivations, not someone else’s efforts to control them.
It all seems so simple; Joan is thrilled! She doesn’t have to feel guilty that she doesn’t know all the thousands of possible extrinsic motivators that could influence her particular employees, or how to accommodate them. All she has to do is treat others as she wants to be treated, provide open, honest and authentic communication, build the capabilities of employees and support her employees implementing their ideas for improving processes and strengthening the business.
So, the next time I’m leading a leadership session and I ask “How do you motivate people?” I know I’ll probably hear some of the usual responses. But, hopefully, I’ll also hear something about giving employees the tools they need to succeed and getting out of the way. Consider it kind of an all generations in one approach knit together by what matters most.
Trying it on for fit:
Examine your people systems to see if your managers and supervisors are relying on old-school methods for motivating people. Find out if they understand what really matters to employees regardless of when they were born. Explore the following:
1) How employees feel about the environment they work in and those with whom they work. Any weaknesses in trust and respect will stifle commitment and motivation.
2) How pay is used. Depending solely on incentive pay to motivate the workplace signals a lack of trust as leaders rely on centralized power and extrinsic motivators to get things done.
3) The content of training. Does it support the case for what matters most to employees, or outdated use of cheap incentives? Traditional motivational programs will thwart efforts to enable personal motivation and initiative.
4) Performance management systems and whether they support stewardship and personal accountability rather than punishment for non-compliance.
5) Communications that are authentic, complete, transparent, and directed to building increased business understanding and capability.
Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!