Productive employees are engaged employees, and engaged employees typically have managers who understand – and deliver on – what motivates them.
One of the most significant differences between different generations of employees is their source of motivation. Supervisors and managers are constantly trying to crack the code for what motivates employees to perform at a high level, but it’s not an easy feat.
As a supervisor or manager, you probably have three to four generations of employees in your workplace. Understanding what motivates them is likely one of your more significant challenges. This article provides some insight and perspective into ways you can most effectively motivate and deliver praise to different generations in the workplace based on the values, motivations, and preferences of each one.
Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
Baby Boomers tend to be competitive, often tying their sense of self to employment status. To motivate a “Boomer”, you must capitalize on their penchant for competition, need for recognition, and desire to make a difference in their workplace.
During a time where employers are scratching their heads about how to get older and younger employees to work together (peacefully), consider providing Boomers with opportunities to mentor younger workers. This arrangement helps with knowledge transfer and skill development of up-and-comers while reminding older workers that they are still valuable. It also taps into their desire to feel needed.
Boomers love a challenge – especially when they know they can win. Consider this when developing teams for tough projects. They also like to be part of the decision-making process, so putting them in charge of teams or projects will motivate them to work harder. Make sure that when they meet (and probably exceed) your expectations, you give them the public recognition they deserve and desire. Prop them up among their peers; this could mean issuing them a promotion or responsibilities that signify a higher authority level.
In recent years, many Boomers have decided to postpone retirement for extended careers due to The economic volatility of the early 2000s, which impacted their ability to retire. Some have also delayed retirement simply because they are active and healthy and see no need to stop working. Employers can keep these employees motivated by offering flexible, part-time work options; this can also help with transitioning other employees into their roles which will eventually be open.
Generation X (1965 -1976)
Generation X, now in their 40s and 50s, make up a large portion of a company's knowledgeable and skillful workforce. They are relied upon for managing projects due to their dependability. With the expectation that they will remain on staff for the next few decades, they are preparing for leadership positions within their companies. As mentioned, sometimes this is delayed due to older generations staying on the job. This may cause Gen Xers to become frustrated, so it's essential to keep them motivated. When the time does come for a Baby Boomer to retire and a Gen Xer to potentially fill that role, they need to be ready and willing.
Gen X cares about company culture, and they like to engage in opportunities for personal growth. To them, employee training and development is the most important workplace policy. Encourage your company to invest in leadership programs, offer mentorship, or provide other opportunities to develop a Gen Xer's expertise. These opportunities will help build relationships that can pave the way to leadership positions, as well as aid in successful role transition. The attention on their development shows Gen Xers that they matter and are vital to the company, which motivates them to perform at a higher level.
Since Gen Xers value a work-life balance, perks such as the ability to work from home and a flexible work schedule rank high on their list of priorities. They will appreciate it when you reward them with time off, which taps into their need for freedom.
While some kind of recognition at work motivates all generations, Gen Xers tend to respond better in intimate settings. Managers might want to present a certificate in front of a smaller team rather than the entire office or deliver positive feedback during a one-on-one session.
Since they are used to praise from their parents and teachers, Millennials "have come to expect evaluation of their work to be based on the outcomes they produce, not based on the age, experience, or tenure of the person who produced them."1 Millennials value continuous feedback on their performance, and they want to feel like you value and approve of the work they are providing to the company.
Much like Gen Xers, Millennials value a healthy work-life balance, which can drive their career decisions. A hardworking Millennial may be very goal-oriented and success-driven, but if a work promotion has the potential to throw their personal life out of balance, then they may not accept. This is not to say that Millennials shouldn't receive promotions, but it paints the picture of how valuable a healthy work-life balance is to them. To support this balance, these employees are likely to respond positively to receiving a raise or paid time off as a means of work acknowledgment and motivation.
This generation grew up feeling valued and positive about themselves, and they thrive off respectful, encouraging language. Our previous article about understanding different generations explained Millennials' preference for electronic communication, so consider this when offering praise, which might take the form of a positive text message or email with higher-ups copied in. If more formal communication is needed, consider short reviews for Millennials throughout a project to assess their performance and note their ongoing growth.
Generation Z (1998-2010)
While Generation Z may not make up a considerable portion of your labor force yet, they'll soon be coming in droves. Supervisors will need to understand how to motivate this unique group of employees. Incredibly self-motivated, Gen Zers will work hard for you but expect a lot in return.
Their heavy reliance on digital tools has created a blurry line between work life and personal life. As such, Gen Zers expect flexibility, convenience, and technology tools integrated into their work setting, and they won't understand if employers don’t embrace these expectations. Your workplace will benefit from their ambitious nature but only if you are ready to meet their needs.
Gen Zers have been exposed to social media and the Internet from a very early age and are accustomed to real-time updates on just about everything. They expect regular feedback from their supervisors, not annual reviews. Their desire for structure and predictability leads them to look to their managers for ongoing training, both formal and informal, and to have a plan for their growth. Despite their reliance on technology, Gen Zers also thrive on in-person interaction, contrary to the assumption that this group would lack the social interaction skills of prior generations.
Consider leaning on older workers to help with skill development of Gen Zers, who are known to seek out mentors actively. As mentioned previously, Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers will jump at the chance to show their value and offer insight, so this is a win-win. And, without this one-on-one guidance, Gen Zers may tend to look to other employers who will chart a clearer path for their future.
Regardless of which generation to which an employee belongs, one characteristic is common: they want feedback. When you learn how to deliver it, your direct reports will feel more connected to you and the company. By understanding what employees value, you can use that knowledge to help motivate them, encourage them, and retain them within the company.
This article originally appeared in the AEU LEAD blog on June 1, 2020.
- Myers, K.K., Sadaghiani, K. Millennials in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials’ Organizational Relationships and Performance. J Bus Psychol 25, 225–238 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-010-9172-7.
- Barry, Sami. “8 Ways To Motivate Baby Boomers & The #1 Thing To Remember.” Insight Blog, Helbling & Associates, Inc., 16 Aug. 2011, www.helblingsearch.com/8-effective-ways-to-motivate-baby-boomers-the-most-important-thing-to-remember.
- “Motivating Baby Boomers at Work.” Sodexo, Sodexo Benefits, 19 Dec. 2018, www.sodexobenefits.com/motivating-baby-boomers-at-work/.
- Berger, Laura. “Managing Millennials In The Workplace.” Forbes Coaches Council, Forbes, 13 Feb. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/02/13/managing-millennials-in-the-workplace/#3ab0089151a9.
- Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. “4 Ways to Retain Gen Xers.” Generational Issues, Harvard Business Review, 5 Nov. 2014, www.hbr.org/2014/09/4-ways-to-retain-gen-xers.
- Blake, Daphne. How to Manage Millennials vs. Gen Xers. Hubworks, www.hubworks.com/blog/how-to-manage-millennials-vs-gen-xers.html.
- Wren, Hannah. Beyond Bonuses: What Motivates Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers: Relate by Zendesk. Relate by Zendesk, relate.zendesk.com/articles/beyond-bonuses-motivates-millennials-generation-x-baby-boomers/.
- Patel, Deep. 10 Ways to Appeal to the Next Wave of Workers: Generation Z. Entrepreneur, 28 Dec. 2016, www.entrepreneur.com/article/286583.