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Who's afraid of the millennials?


April 24, 2018

Many leaders wonder how to juggle the needs of millennials, Gen X, and Boomers that are said to so different. And generational differences aren’t even half the story. In addition to becoming more age-diverse, the workforces in most industrialised countries are also turning more international and more female. On this background alone, one may question if an increasingly diverse workforce may be lumped together in only three generations. Moreover, there is evidence that the differences between members of the same generation are larger than differences between generations. Finally, by definition, members of a generation share experiences that have a formative impact (e.g., educational system).

This suggests that millennials from, say, South Africa might have as much in common with millennials from, say, Bulgaria, as sets them apart. No wonder some researchers posit that our classification of generations is useless at best and dangerous at worst, as it triggers stereotyping. Still, many organisations and their leaders cling to just those generational stereotypes. Why?

The answer is simple. The hype about the generations reflects companies and leaders’ fear and insecurity in the first place. In this ‘vuca’ world of work, generational stereotypes help leaders reduce one facet of complexity they feel they cannot handle – the fact that different people have different needs and that differences are growing. At the same time, individualised consideration keeps being preached to a cornerstone of ‘transformational leadership’, which many researchers and leaders alike consider to be the best possible form of leadership. The numbers of young entries to the workforce are shrinking in most industrialised countries and companies woo applicants more than ever. Consequently, perhaps for the first time in the history of industrialisation, many leaders realise they need to deal with individuals, rather than with a presumably homogeneous ‘bunch of followers’. Yet, many leaders do not really seem to know how to properly give their employees that individualised consideration. “Will I be opening a ‚can of worms’ if I use individualised leadership strategies?” seems to be question many leaders have on their minds.

Will they?

Of course not. Individualised consideration does not mean that an employee gets whatever she or he wants – but what he or she needs to work effectively, efficiently, and sustainably. Individualising is not pampering, nor does it require that leaders ‘work out a personal plan’ how to individually and differently motivate each of their employees. Even with best intentions and with all the time in the world on one’s hands, that kind of individualisation will never work. So, what’s the alternative?

Let’s turn to the good side of the generations debate. After all, it shows that different people’s different needs are on the radar and deemed important. All it takes to turn that awareness into individualised leadership is to turn some current principles upside down…

The ‚old logic‘, which even the most benevolent leaders seem to follow is that they do something for their employees. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. ‘Technically’ speaking, however, leaders can only do something together with their employees. That includes motivating them and giving them the individualised consideration they request, require – and deserve. In the old logic, leaders feel they must ‘make’ or ‘create’ their employees’ motivation. In other words, they endorse a ‘push’ view on motivation with encouragement, feedback, praise, and rewards (and sometimes punishment…) as their motivation ‘tools’. Motivating people that way is quite a difficult thing to do, however; difficulties multiply with one’s span of control. In contrast, if leaders view as their responsibility to create a work context in which motivation can unfold and to help employees surmount obstacles to high motivation, then motivating becomes a much easier goal to attain. In my leadership coaching, I portray motivation as a ‘decision’; if certain conditions are met, employees ‘decide’ to be motivated. Of course, only employees can make that decision, not their leaders. Employees usually know best what drives their motivation and what stifles it. That knowledge puts them in a position to co-create with their leaders a motivating work context.

Basically, motivation is one’s readiness to put effort into reaching certain work goals and to keep up that effort in the face of difficulty. That readiness mainly depends on three conditions. First, there must be benefit(s) one sees in reaching a goal. More responsibility? More recognition? More money? Whatever the benefit may be, it will only become a motivator if a second condition is met: employees must see and believe that benefit is within reach because they get from their organisation or leader the informational or instrumental support they need. Finally, if employees see benefits they value and know they’ll have the support to reap those benefits, they will have to be convinced they ‘have got what it takes’ in terms of knowledge and skills; this self-belief is often referred to as one’s self-efficacy. To many leaders‘ surprise, even the most attractive benefits will fail to motivate if employees lack self-efficacy.

Consequently, the focus of leaders’ motivational interventions shifts from motivating (as in ‘making motivation’) to enabling employees’ motivation. Instead of asking “How can I motivate my employees?“ the ‘new-logic‘ question is “What do my employees need to be motivated?”

That question isn’t novel, but the way it is answered may well be. Instead of answering that question themselves, ‘new-logic leaders’ let their employees answer it – keeping in mind that enabling motivation sometimes isn’t so much about the things that motivate as it is about the things that keep employees from being motivated. ‘New-logic leaders’ focus on exploring these things along the aforementioned lines of perceived benefits, support, and self-efficacy. As employees will bring in their individual views on benefits wanted and support required, such conversations will ‘automatically’ entail individualised consideration and provide leaders the information they need to enable motivation. In other words, leaders won’t need to work out a motivational strategy for each employee – employees do most of that work themselves.

The strategy of an ‘interactive management of motivation’ is of course more complex than I have described here. Leaders don’t simply ask their employees what they need to be motivated, employees give straightforward answers, and solved is every problem. Not all conversations will run like clockwork and leaders will need a relatively sophisticated strategy of motivational exploration.

But that’s merely a learnable skill, rather than rocket science. Solid tools have been developed and are merely waiting to be used. Learning their essentials in tailored trainings is a matter of three days. The rest, like any learning in life, is practice – which we know can make perfect. The interactive management of motivation isn’t a guarantee that each and every employee will be motivated at all times. But it’s the best possible way to motivate as many employees as possible as highly as possible. And it doesn’t take sensational insights from neuroscience (‘neuroleadership‘) or radically new and different ways of leading. All it takes is a change in perspective. That’s not a lot, is it.

Prof. Dr Christian Stamov Roßnagel teaches at the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences based at the Jacobs University, Bremen, Germany