There's no question motivated employees are more productive, more creative, and add more overall value to an organization than their "just doing what it takes to get by" counterparts. They can, in fact, be key to your success—a differentiator that sets you apart from the competition.
Yet because it comes from within, motivation cannot be created, taught, or instilled. It can, however, be tapped into, supported, and maintained. The question is how. Does money always do the trick? Are recognition and respect critical factors? Is the promise of career advancement key?
Well, yes and no. What works for one employee doesn't necessarily work for another. And because different individuals are by nature driven by different motivators, there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach.
What's an organization to do?
Armed with the knowledge that motivation is one of the most important—yet least understood—keys to employee performance improvement, AchieveGlobal set out to investigate to what extent generational differences are at play in motivational factors.
The thought behind the survey of approximately 300 employees across the U.S. was this: Since motivating employees based on their individual drivers can be complex, and motivating employees with a blanket approach leaves many out in the cold, maybe a glimpse into generational trends can provide some logical direction for an organization-wide approach to employee motivation.
And what better time to explore such an approach than now—a unique point in U.S. history where at least four generations of employees are in the workplace:
- Traditionalists: those born before 1947
- Baby Boomers: those born between 1947 and 1964
- Generation X: those born between 1965 and 1980
- Generation Y/Millennials: those born after 1980
Our survey respondents were evenly distributed across the four generations, and all were asked the same questions about their motivators, goals, achievement strategies, and learning preferences. Some results were predictable based on where the respondents are in their careers; others, as you'll see, were enlightening.
Motivators by Generation
When asked about the most important goal in their job (i.e., what motivates them), employees across the generations on average sorted to self-fulfillment and "feeling good about what I do." This response was most pronounced for Traditionalists (45 percent), many of whom are nearing retirement age and likely are at least content—if not satisfied—with their careers just as they are.
The second most frequent response was a tie, with "flexibility in my schedule" selected by 37 percent of Baby Boomers and "advancement in my career/profession /company" selected by 37 percent of Generation Y/Millenials. It's interesting to note flexibility ranked high by Traditionalists and Generation Xers as well, although only 10 percent of Generation Y/Millenials see it as their most important motivation.
Surprisingly, "more money/better benefits" did not turn up as a large motivator across the generations as a whole. It was ranked highest by Generation Xers, 16 percent of whom selected it as their most important motivation. Its importance falls further from there, with only 9 percent of Generation Y/Millenials, 5 percent of Baby Boomers, and 4 percent of Traditionalists giving it top billing.
A possible explanation for "more money" ranking so low is money has been shown to have only a short-term impact on behavior, making it more effective as an incentive than a long-term motivator. In addition, many employees rewarded with money end up using it to pay bills —at which point it becomes compensation and loses its value as a motivator.
Going for the Goal
As part of our survey, we also set out to understand the strategies different generations think are vital to reaching their career goals. Not surprisingly, their answers linked directly to their career stage. (See Figure 2).
While "advancing my skills/knowledge" was at the top of the list for 59 percent of workforce newbies Generation Y/Millenials, only 21 percent of Traditionalists felt the same way—with Generation Xers and Baby Boomers falling in between the two, with 40 percent and 35 percent, respectively. On the flip side, 60 percent of Traditionalists chose "just doing the best job I can" as the activity most likely to lead to achieving their goals, while only 15 percent of Generation Y/Millenials think that's the right path to their own career success.
These results—large populations of older employees who just want to keep doing what they're doing while younger employees are eager to grown and learn—could have a handful of implications on an organization's change management initiatives.
Lessons in Learning
Because "advancing skills" was reported as such an important avenue to achieving goals, the next set of questions became even more relevant. We asked our survey participants about sources of learning and their efficacy.
As seen in Figure 3, employees across all four generations favor self-taught and outside training over formal programs traditionally offered inside the workplace (e.g., lecture-based training or e-learning page-turners).
Although earlier generations are more in favor of formal training than younger ones, it's likely a function of being "what they know and are accustomed to" versus a strong preference in that direction. And with today's proliferation of wikis, blogs, and social networking sites on the internet, it's no surprise Generation Y/Millenials lean heavily in favor of self-taught learning.
"Having a mentor" earned its fair share of responses—coming in third place out of five for both Generation Xers and Generation Y/Millenials (21 percent) and landing in a three-way tie for second place with Baby Boomers (25 percent). Predictably, as the oldest generation, Traditionalists generally see little value in having a mentor, with a mere 11 percent ranking it at the top.
The Optimal Approach
Our survey results made one thing perfectly clear: The best way to ensure employees across the board benefit from training is to get creative, lean toward a more informal learning experience, and make it personal.
To get creative, organizations need to offer opportunities to experience the content in a number of ways: role plays and visceral experiences that engage both the heart and the mind; multimedia approaches such as video, wikis, blogs, and Web-based training; opportunities to learn from trainers as well as peers.
As for the preference toward a more informal learning experience, training ideally should be delivered in short increments and embedded into the learner's work flow. Shortened attention spans and increased workloads have made multitasking a way of life. The ability to blend learning with the way individuals work is an attractive option for the future.
And above all, learning at its best is personalized. Resist the temptation to compartmentalize employees into one prescribed generation. Instead, zone in on individual preferences as much as possible.
Remember: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to maintaining motivation, delivering training, or anything else having to do with your very individual employees.
Creating a Motivating Environment
Here are some thought starters to use as you consider developing new programs or creating new systems around employee motivation. But always remember: None of this trumps addressing individual needs and values!
Links to figures cited in the article:
Most Important Goals
Methods of Achieving Goals By Generation
Lessons in Learning
Creating a Motivating Environment