Managing Millennials Comes Down to Science

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by Judy Agnew, Ph.D., SVP Aubrey Daniels International

Much has been written about managing the new generation of workers—the Millennials (born after 1980). There are many attention-grabbing descriptions of this cohort of young workers, even humorous YouTube videos mocking them. Most of what is written seems more like an expression of frustration than helpful advice. While it is tempting to scoff at this generation’s seemingly unrealistic expectations about work, that doesn’t help those who are tasked with managing them.  With differing work ethics and expectations, the divide between Millennials and their Baby Boomer or Gen X managers puts stress on even strong organizations. Understanding the differences is part of the answer, but adopting different management strategies is really the only way to attract, retain and bring out the best in this new generation of workers.

So what makes Millennials different—what defines them? Various researchers summarize this generation as technologically savvy, confident, upbeat/optimistic and on track to being the most educated generation in U.S. history. They like social interaction and thus thrive in team environments; they are creative, like challenges and solving problems. This is the good stuff. They also have less patience, are less loyal, want to see immediate results, demand more feedback and more recognition, including rapid pay raises and promotions, want flexible work hours, want options to work from home and demand a work/life balance. This is the challenging stuff.

To understand how to best manage across generations, it’s important to look at how they’ve each evolved. From a behavioral science perspective, each generation, like each individual, is a product of a reinforcement history. Individual and group behavior is shaped over time by environmental contingencies (antecedents and consequences) including social (provided by parents, teachers, peers, etc.), economic (socio-economic status, depressions, booms, etc.), and political (wars, political unrest/stability, political oppression, etc.), among others. Common behaviors in certain generations are the result of shared generational reinforcement histories. These were created by the prevalent parenting practices, economic conditions, current technology, etc. of that time. Reinforcement history can shape behaviors that endure a lifetime, but fear not—if contingencies change, behaviors will change as well.

What characterizes the reinforcement history of Millennials is frequent feedback and reinforcement. Critics say that the feedback Millennials received during their early years was all positive and the reinforcement non-contingent. The “trophy for showing up” and “not keeping score when young kids play sports” are often cited as examples of what are considered to be more pervasive trends. While this generation has certainly experienced more non-contingent positive praise, it is my experience that kids understand the difference between contingent and non-contingent recognition. Ask my kids which of their many trophies are most valuable to them and they point to the ones they earned through skill and effort, not the ones they got for showing up. Furthermore, while parents and coaches may be making mistakes of non-contingency, video games do not. Every move is either reinforced or punished and kids learn quickly to adjust their behavior to get desired outcomes. They are very accustomed to negative feedback — their video game personas “die” over and over as a result of their behavior, and they learn to simply use the feedback to get better. So this reinforcement history of frequent feedback (positive and negative) and reinforcement is not all bad.

Another characteristic of this generation is that they want to make a difference. While previous generations focused on getting a “good job,” which usually meant one with stability, good pay and benefits, this generation wants their work to matter. Thus, they are less willing than previous generations to work in a vacuum—going for long periods of time without knowing if what they are doing is making a difference. This generation will work hard, but they need to see impact.

On Page 2: How to utilize science to improve how you work with Gen Y workers.

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