How to Motivate Millennials – It’s Not What You Think

Well, the evidence seems pretty clear, behavior scientists state that if you give consistent feedback, set ambitious goals, and provide proper incentives, Millennials and nearly everyone performs better.


However, according to a recent review done by UC Berkeley Haas assistant professor Juliana Schroeder and Ayelet Fishbach of Chicago School of Business, by comparing 150 research papers and they found that the formula for motivation is not that black and white. In fact, there is a tremendous amount of grey area in deciding what motivation determines performance.


Have you ever managed someone who was doing great on a project and through too much praise they became unmotivated? What about when you criticize someone and suddenly they became more effective at what they do? But wait, doesn’t that break the paradigm that criticizing people leads to a drop in behavior? Well, these nuanced behaviors are quite common and paradigm breaking. The question then becomes, what to use and where.


When considering motivation, three element are worth evaluating: feedback, goals and incentives. Through balancing these three pillars, one can effectively maximize motivation in a Millennial employee.

Giving Feedback

In black and white context, feedback falls into two buckets: positive and negative. The common paradigm surrounding feedback usually consists of:


Positive feedback will motivate people to achieve a task.

Negative feedback will demotivate someone to achieve a task.


This paradigm is erroneous. There are many cultures and working environments where positive feedback is extremely scarce, yet, the individuals within them are still motivated to finish the task. On the other hand, there are much fewer if any environments that consist solely of positive feedback.


So when do you use positive versus negative feedback?


Use negative feedback when someone is already committed to their goals.

Use positive feedback when someone needs commitment to their goals.

Imagine you just hired a new employee who is excited about their job. In order to provide them the proper feedback you consistently criticize them to ensure that they are doing a good job Over time you notice that their performance begins to wane and eventually dives to a screeching halt. In this case, the individual lacked commitment to their goals and needed positive feedback to start commitment.


On the other hand, imagine a veteran employee who’s locked into a particular objective. You might notice no amount of negative feedback can deter them. In this case, the individual can handle negative feedback to move towards the objective. Positive feedback is not mandatory here.

Setting Goals

In the world of goal setting, goals can be thought of as a result promised within a given length of time. With these boundaries, goals are usually thought of:


Setting big goals will produce big results.

Setting small goals will produce small results.

While this does seem true on the surface, people do not work the same way with small and large goals. Research by the University of Chicago found that people tend to slack off in the middle of the goal. In this area, people are more likely to break protocol or push out deadlines influencing the project deliverables. While this might not seem like an important note, with larger goals, there is more ‘middle’ time making larger timelines easier to slack on.


In this situation then, setting shorter goals tends to produce better results from the standpoint employees perceive them as achievable. Of course, boundaries of the duration must aligned matched with the amount of effort. Typically, people do better when they are focusing on how far they have come rather than how far they need to go. Setting smaller goals make this process easier by decreasing the amount of perceptual time left.


In conclusion the paradigm of goal setting:


Setting big goals will increase potential lag time.

Setting small goals will decrease potential lag time.


Incentivizing Effectively

There are three categories for incentives: certain vs. uncertain, extrinsic vs. intrinsic, and immediate vs. delayed. Common notions associated with each category:


Certain incentivizes are more incentivizing than uncertain.

Extrinsic incentives are less incentivizing than intrinsic ones.

Immediate incentivizes are more incentivizing than delayed.


With each category here, it depends. There are cases where uncertain incentivization can work more effectively than certain. Especially when the payoff is quite large. A perfect example of this is gambling.


For intrinsic vs extrinsic, according to professor Julia Schroeder, ‘People also seem to value intrinsic incentives more when they are in the middle of pursuing a goal than when they have not yet started.’ This can also correlate how companies provide a lot of immediate incentivization packages to attract employees but then employee engagement drops off as the employee spends more time at the company. Hence, extrinsic motivation did not outlast the intrinsic motivation of job fulfillment.


Across the board, people tend to value immediate incentivization over delayed ones. However, if utilized effectively, delayed gratification can be more rewarding than immediate gratification. There was a movement in the corporate workplace revolving around gamification where small gratifications can lead to a larger and more fulfilling incentives. In order to leverage delayed feedback, you will need to have a strong grasp of the deep motives that an employees has. Once understood, proper matching of delayed gratification can work, but knowing that what their true values is another challenge. To keep things simple, leverage more instant gratification approaches in the workplace than delayed ones.


In the future when addressing Millennials, remember these three pillars: feedback, goals and Incentivizes. If you are able to match the approach feedback, with properly times goals and intriguing incentives, you will find motivation much easier to accomplish with Millennials.


Jeff Butler

Jeff Butler Internationally respected speaker and consultant, Jeff Butler helps bridge generational gaps between Millennials and companies looking for their talent and patronage. Butler has quickly built his reputation as a memorable presenter with tangible solutions for attracting, retaining, and engaging Millennials as employees and customers. Within just the past three years, he has spoken at two TEDx events and multiple Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.


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