Motivating Millennials?

Motivating millennials is a hot topic, and that makes it hard to do well because there’s so much written about it already over the last decade. But what’s the truth and what’s BS?

First, let’s start with recent research on generational differences at work: Millennials are not much different than the rest of the workforce that’s older than them. Check, “What Millennials Want from a New Job”, and “What Do Millennials Really Want at Work? The Same Things the Rest of Us Do”, both available from HBR. But, as we’ll see in a moment, there might be one important difference.

Second, we now know more about the science of trust, e.g. which actions release oxytocin (increase trust) v. those that release testosterone (decrease trust), than was known a decade or so ago (See “Trust Factor” by Paul J. Zak). This research is very important with respect to leadership, because it highlights the need for positive reinforcement right after someone takes an action you want them to learn, with reinforcement over time.

Let’s step back and look at a very different non-tech work environment for a moment, the U.S. Marine Corps. The basic problem the Marines faced with Millennial recruits is they didn’t know how to self-motivate. To address this, the Marines had to completely revise their Basic Training program to instill the most fundamental aspect of being a Marine, bias for action. As told in the the chapter, ‘Motivation’ in the book, “Smarter Faster Better”, by Charles Duhigg, their approached centered on praising a Recruit when they accomplished a task that was difficult for them to do, regardless of how small. This requires a strong attention to detail by the Drill Instructor regarding the work being performed by the Recruit. This is especially true in a group setting because all the recruits need feedback! Further, the Drill Instructors were deliberately careful to not criticize various actions the Recruits were doing as they worked through their tasks, to help build their sense of autonomy. Using this disciplined praise approach, the Marines were successful in instilling a bias for action in their newly minted Marines by the time they graduated from Boot Camp.

The thing about the Marine’s approach is that it seems counter to other research regarding the generational differences. But, who cares about the generational thing? Because their approach focuses on solid approaches to building Trust, it is highly effective. At the end of the day, you just want to help your staff, whoever they are, improve their performance!

Let’s shift our view to that of the Software Engineering environment, where ‘difficult task’ means different things to different types of Engineers in the context of their work. Tailor your learning approach to the problem they are facing down, no matter how easy or odd it may seem to you. The objectives are to help them learn, and also to establish and build the trust bond between the two of you.

Here’s a planning approach that uses tactics based on Trust research when creating a lesson for the staffer you are coaching:

  • Set an objective with an area of interest that your team member has asked to improve, and to which you agree. Good mentors provide hints for areas of focus for their mentees over time so their desire is fostered early enough that they self-generate topics on their own.
  • Have your mentee create the first draft of the plan, and then help them hone it, establishing clear boundaries, and desired outcomes that are important to them (and you, too).
  • Ensure they include metrics that will be used to verify progress. Get their buy-in.
  • Set short and frequent 1:1s to go over the plan as it progresses, and don’t skip them. There is nothing that destroys trust faster in a leader/follower relationship than showing them with your most important asset, time, that you don’t care about them.
  • Praise all actions and outcomes your employee achieves per plan, plus additional learnings that appear which you want to reinforce as part of their longer-term career development.
  • At some point, you’ll need to work through undesired outcomes with your employee. You may have historically used the ‘sandwich approach’ to coach people through negative outcomes. It has been recently suggested that this approach may be overused now (“The ‘Sandwich Approach’ Undermines Your Feedback”, by Roger Schwarz) with employees. Given we’re in an Engineering setting with highly educated staff, a socratic questioning approach may yield better results (“What’s the goal?”, “What’s the best way to achieve this given our constraints?”, “Prove by case that you’ve found the best way”, or, “Walk me through the plusses and minuses to this solution”, etc.). Be careful to maintain an even tone though, as it’s very easy for socratic questioning to become a little too edgy, negating your coaching efforts.

When the project is completed, have your staffer create a review for the final 1:1 of this project. Praise all learnings your staffer has gained. Talk about the things you’ve learned in this process with them to model the behavior you want them to learn. Together, surface those outcomes that are opportunities for more learning. Continue to positively reinforce these learnings in the future after the formal lesson has been completed.

The Caution: Biases. We all have them, and longer-term experienced leaders often have a strong urge to simply tell their mentee how a prior similar situation was solved by doing X. This has two negative outcomes: 1) Your bias could be the wrong answer in this situation; 2) You’ll likely greatly diminish your staffer’s learning. Instead, walking beside your employee through a careful questioning method helps them to a sense of accomplishment in their learning, which better helps them to remember it when needed. You might learn a thing or two from them through this process as well ;-).

In the next post on Motivating Millennials, we’re going to focus training new Engineering Leaders.

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