How to Manage Me: Employee Engagement for Millennials

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Kris Duggan CEO at BetterWorks, BetterWorks

Posted on June 12th 2014

How to Manage Me: Employee Engagement for Millennials

Full disclosure: Written by Alex Moffet, who is a Millennial.

I am not ashamed to admit it: I was born between the years of 1981 and 2000. Aside from this Gregorian truth, I know two additional truths about our generation:

  1. There are a lot of us (76 million millennials in the United States alone. By 2025, we will make up 75% of the world’s workforce.)
  2. We are not engaged at work (56% of workforce Millennials are engaged: the lowest number of any generation.)

millennial employeesWhile the influx of Millennials into the workplace cannot be stemmed, the rising tide of disengagement can be. We are a generation with vast potential: we are smart, goal-oriented, diverse, and have brains wired for the modern age. Yet, as many managers know, we can be a handful at times. Our appetite for feedback is big, constant, and can border on neediness. We are comfortable skipping rungs in the hierarchical ladder if we feel things are unfair, or feel unincluded.

These difficulties are the products of a mismatch between Millennial employees, and the outdated management practices of prior decades. Something has to change. Here’s why Quantified Work and goal science will markedly improve life for Millennial employees:

Connected:

vertical alignment, horizontal alignment, and company mission.

We are always “on,” and are keenly aware of how, and where, we fit into our various networks. Millennials strongly dislike being kept out of the loop, and when connections are aligned and visible, we thrive. One common complaint of Millennial workers is that we bypass the standard “chain of command” if we feel something is wrong at our “level.” Rather than speak with our manager, we may simply speak with the Head of Design or the VP of Engineering directly. This behavior could easily be fixed with better alignment. Seeing how our goals relate to those of managers, relevant stakeholders, and even executives provides an immediate connection, and an antidote to alienation.

We are also a generation of big ideas. We think in terms of themes and overarching objectives. Researchers Andrea Hershatter and Molly Epsteinfound that,

“Millennials naturally align themselves with the kind of objectives outlined in strategic plans… they care about corporate missions and objectives.”

We need modern systems that help us align with the big missions we care about, and make our individual work feel that much more meaningful.

Supported:

working transparently with social reinforcement and recognition.

David Brooks labeled us the “Meritocratic Elite” because of our fiercely Puritan work-ethic. Hard work should reward all, and we don’t have patience for unfair environments or structures. New Quantified Work and goal science platforms provide a social contract for the workplace. Once goals are set, they are visible for everyone to see. There is accountability in transparency: hard workers shine, and slackers have nowhere to hide.

Millennial new hires are expected jump in and produce immediately. We are capable of that, but we need a little more guidance (or what disgruntled managers may call “hand holding.”) A cycling-spin on the old adage goes, “if you fall off the bike, you have to get back up on it.” While this adage may have resonated with new hires in the 20th century, it doesn’t resonate with Millennials: we all had training wheels.

Intelligent goal-setting, combined with social reinforcement, such as likes and nudges, makes for a highly supportive work environment that echoes the ones we grew up in. The right combination of social reinforcement and recognition takes much of the weight off of managers’ shoulders. Our penchant for “training wheels” does not need to be exhausting, and it is worth noting we probably end up on two wheels sooner.

Progress Based:

frequent, measurable feedback and frequent wins.

Millennials were raised on a steady diet of feedback, and it is still our fuel. Ron Alsop, author and writer for the Wall Street Journal, christened us “the Trophy Kids.” No matter the occasion or outcome, we were always sure to receive some ribbon or trophy. What began as a prevention against hurt feelings, morphed into part of our identity. Just look to Jack Black’smagnum opusSchool of Rock. In a pivotal scene, Black’s character proclaims to a young student,

“Summer, you get an A+… and fifty gold stars.”

Frivolous stars aside, feedback serves an incredibly important purpose. Without it, it is impossible to know where you are, or how you are doing. Feedback is also closely tied to progress. As researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer discovered, there is nothing more important to employee happiness and success than, “making progress in meaningful work.” It comes as no surprise then that, “Millennials expect… frequent feedback from supervisors.” The progress principle applies to Millennials too. We just need that much more feedback for us to fully capture our progress.

This increased need for feedback is often times too much for supervisors. Luckily there are emerging tools perfectly suited for the task of more frequent, and more relevant, feedback. Beginning with well-set goals, progress can be constantly quantified, and feedback can be given. Employees no longer have to wait for a quarterly review to truly know their progress at work. They have the agency to track progress whenever they wish, and receive insightful feedback at the right moments. Frequent feedback is easier, and more powerful.

Adaptable:

flexibility to respond to changing goals and business needs

Adaptability is a critical need for Millennials. As “Digital Natives,” we are accustomed to constantly multitasking. We are highly skilled at flexibly moving from one task to the next as we see fit. Even as I write this now, I have five tabs open on this window, two more windows behind it, and nine other programs running as well.

Millennials are not just defined by multitasking flexibility. Flexibility runs even deeper for us. Research by the Society of Human Research Management found that Millennials,

“Demand freedom and flexibility to do work at [our] own pace and in [our] own way.”

The needs of businesses are ever-changing; rigidity is not a viable option. If a business has to be flexible to survive, it must empower its employees to be highly adaptable to changing circumstances too. The best approach to adaptive goal-setting runs completely counter to the standard “set it and forget it approach” of the annual review process. Individuals with the ability to add new goals, and modify existing ones, on-the-fly can be make more nimble decisions, and achieve better results.

Aspirational:

promote greater achievement and encourage excellence. 

A recent Pew Research study found that Millennials have the most optimistic beliefs about America’s future of any generation. Despite economic hardships of the past decade, much of our lives has been close to idyllic. The road to success is clearer for us than for any previous generation, and we believe hard work is all it takes to pave it.

Is this view overly optimistic? Maybe, but there is little doubt that it pushes us to aspire. Why shoot for the moon, when we can shoot for Mars? Millennials expect excellence from ourselves. We want to work for employers that expect the same of us, understand how we work best, and have the tools to help us succeed.

The arrival time for Millennials is fast approaching, if not already here. We stand to make serious waves in the workplace. What kind of waves will they be? Will we be the disengaged generation? Or, will we be a generation that cherishes meaningful work, and doing good. Much of this hinges on the state of the workplace; only time will tell if the management of old adapts to the creators of new. The themes of connectedness, support, progress, adaptability, and aspiration must become true pillars. If they do, there will be some very exciting times ahead.

Managing Millennial employees / shutterstock

betterworks

Kris Duggan

CEO at BetterWorks, BetterWorks

Presently leads BetterWorks, a brand new company dedicated to helping companies, managers, and employees succeed at work. Previously, pioneered a new category of software called "gamification" for customer engagement and employee productivity. Founded the market leader in gamification, Badgeville, in 2010.

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