Motivating Four Generations of Employees

October 25, 2008

Motivating Your Employees

It’s unprecedented – and, its a fact.  There are four separate generations working side-by-side in corporate America today.

As an employer, you know that the success of your business depends, in large part, on the success of your employees. It’s axiomatic that the more productive your workforce is, the better your profit margin will be – but what exactly is it that motivates employees? Is money the main motivator for them? Are your employees more productive when you provide meaningful feedback or recognition?

The keys to employee motivation have been studied over the years and the basic truth gleaned is: there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to motivating your workers. Often, it depends on the individual employee. Furthermore, it depends on what stage an employee is in his or her career and even the generation that person is from.

Generational Differences

Today’s manager must deal with essentially four different generations:

Traditionalists include those born from 1925 to 1945;

Baby Boomers include those born from 1946 to 1960;

Generation X includes those born from 1961 to 1980; and

Millenials (or Generation Y) were born in 1981 and thereafter.

Those belonging to each generation tend to display common characteristics, although there are always exceptions.

Traditionalists grew up in the depression and during a period of significant world difficulties. Their formative years included World War II, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam. As a result, they tend to be practical rules-followers who are respectful of authority. They are also typically hardworking and loyal individuals.

Baby boomers may have missed World War II, but their lives were also shaped by such events as the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War. Their world was colored by an increasing emphasis on peaceful cooperation amongst nations as an alternative to the tensions of the cold and hot wars of their generation. As a result, they tend to value teamwork and cooperation and are ambitious, optimistic ’workaholics’.

Generation X workers’ formative years may have begun in tumultuous times, but this generation also witnessed a peaceful period in world history. Unfortunately, the period also included difficult economic times that forced companies to rethink the benefits offered to workers, including job security. The movement of jobs from the United States to other countries took a heavy toll on the American worker. As a result, Gen X-ers tend to be skeptical of what they are told and are self-reliant individuals. They don’t mind taking risks and place a high premium on balancing their working and personal lives.

Millenials grew up in a prosperous period in American history and also one with great technological advancement. As a result, they are hopeful individuals who are comfortable with current technology. They appreciate diversity in the workplace and want their work to mean something.

As you can see, each generation presents unique challenges to a manager. How you manage a Traditionalist who easily accepts authority can be vastly different than managing a Generation Y-er who wants to know why you want them to do a particular job. If you have a diverse workplace, it’s important to recognize that no one generation has a lock on the secret of life or the best way to conduct business. If you recognize this and approach employees based on their generational values, you are likely to enhance the productivity of your entire team.

We are All Individuals

While stereotypes can help you determine motivators for your workforce, no two individuals are alike. It’s the supervisor’s job to identify each person’s motivations and the best way to do this is through talking with employees. Some typical motivators a supervisor is likely to see are:

Compensation – There is little doubt that most employees are motivated to some extent by their paycheck. There is a fine line, however, between the motivational aspect of compensation and the non-motivational aspect. If pay and/or benefits are too little, you risk alienating an employee because they feel discounted, while too much can create an ’entitlement’ mentality that may also hurt productivity.

Recognition – The majority of workers want to know that their individual efforts are appreciated. It’s important that good work is rewarded, not only in the pay envelope, but also through sincere positive feedback from supervisors and peers. Be careful that you approach any recognition or award program thoughtfully and tailor the reward to the individual receiving it.

Career counseling and assistance – Most employees seek to advance in their career and anything you can do to show your interest in their welfare, by offering career coaching and educational opportunities, is likely to pay big dividends in the future.

Flexible work arrangements – Many employees value flexibility over rigid working conditions. The wise use of telecommuting and flexible work hours can enhance employee loyalty to your company. That could translate into an emotional ownership in the company that will motivate workers to align their goals with those of the employer. One caution: some jobs simply can’t be done at home and some employees would rather work (and feel more productive in) an office setting than at home.

There are other factors that motivate employees and this article doesn’t purport to cover all of them. Hopefully, it has given you some appreciation that a diverse workforce can be a formidable challenge – and even spurred ideas for some ways to approach your management of them. Have a great October and let us know how we can assist you.

Brian Patrick Cork

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