Managing Millennials Comes Down to Science

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So how can science help? It turns out that what Millennials are asking for is what the science of behavior tells us is the best way to manage performance—of any generation. According to research done by Jay Gilbert (Gilbert, September/October 2011), Millennials want frequent and specific feedback and they don’t mind negative feedback if it makes it clear how to improve. They want clear expectations and want to know where they stand relative to those expectations. Gilbert’s findings match what behavioral science recommends. The science suggests setting clear expectations through pinpointing desired outcomes and important behaviors and measuring both in order to provide frequent (ideally daily or weekly) feedback on performance. Importantly, the science is clear that contingent consequences, with a focus on positive reinforcement, are critical for driving and sustaining high performance. One key is frequency. The more frequent the feedback and reinforcement the better. Annual performance appraisals and monthly celebrations do little to create optimal work performance.

A second key is using effective reinforcers. Superficial understanding of the science leads managers to have a narrow definition of reinforcement—think pay raises and pats on the back. The most effective reinforcers, particularly for this generation, are those that help performers see the impact of their efforts on a daily or weekly basis. Anything that lets them know they are getting better, they are learning, they are more effective, they are making a difference is likely to be an effective reinforcer. No trophies required.

Those who understand the science of behavior can see that what Millennials want is just good management. The difference is that this generation is demanding it whereas others did not. Could it be that these tattooed, pierced, always-plugged-in young adults are going to make it better for all of us? I think so.

In addition to promoting good management practices there is another very important characteristic of Millennials—work/home balance and flexible work schedules. According to Pew Research (Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change Pew Re-search Social and Demographic Trends, February 24, 2010), they prioritize parenthood and marriage far above career and financial success. They are willing to work hard, but they want more time with their family. How can organizations that have relied on 60+ hour work weeks continue to be successful with workers who want to keep it closer to 40? This is a serious dilemma but, again, the science provides part of the answer. Managers have to ensure that the hours that are worked are maximally productive. All non-essential work needs to be minimized. Managers need to be able to assess what employees are doing (behaviors) and what impact that work is having. This is possible, but it requires different measures of performance and more collaboration between workers and managers to identify and shape the most productive, impactful behaviors. This is not micromanaging, it is good coaching and mentoring that helps employees learn the most effective ways to do their work. Taking a scientific approach to figuring out high and low impact behaviors will allow all of us to focus on what really drives the business and still get home to our families for dinner.

While the inclusion of Millennials into the workplace may frustrate older generations, I predict that with the very qualities that make them who they are, Millennials will help reshape the world of work in ways that will benefit us all, business included. For those companies and managers that adopt strategies better suited to Millennial reinforcement histories, the more these companies/managers will attract and retain the best of this generation as well as bring out the best in other generations.

Judy Agnew is a recognized thought leader in the field of behavior-based safety, safety leadership, and performance management, and she is an expert consultant who works with clients to create behavioral interventions that ensure organizations are safe by design. As Senior Vice President of Safety Solutions at Aubrey Daniels International (ADI), Judy partners with clients to create behavior-based interventions that use positive, practical approaches grounded in the science of behavior and engineered to ensure long-term sustainability.


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