There has been a bit of a battle brewing between the baby boomers (individualistic, judgmental, established) and the millennials (over-achieving, innovative, and self-possessed). I am a proud member of the frequently-overlooked Gen X, forever sandwiched between these misunderstood head-butters. Given that by 2025, millennials will be roughly 75% of our workforce, the bulk of this article will focus on advice for the millennials about how to effectively work within the constraints of the modern workplace. The boomers, and all other non-millennial groups, should pay attention to the advice and the expectations millennials have accordingly.
Google “millennials at work” and you’ll find an array of articles about how to manage them, how to get them to step up, how to react when they don’t take ownership of their work. You’ll find studies, such as this popular meta-analysis, demonstrating how increasingly, young Americans “believe their lives are controlled by outside forces rather than their own efforts.” This growing external locus of control (lack of taking ownership) corresponds to similar reports of increases in cynicism, individualism, and self-serving biases. It seems the general consensus by the rest of the workforce is that millennials struggle to fully take responsibility for their work.
Science, however, shows that intrinsic motivation is a problem not just for millennials, but for everyone. Dan Pink, in a brilliant talk on the puzzle of motivation, demonstrates that there is a profound mismatch between “what science knows and what business does” when it comes to incentivizing performance. Through an extensive series of experiments offering anywhere from $0 to $600 of compensation, requiring anything from basic motor movements to more critical cognitive skill, and conducted from rural India to MIT, researchers found that how we traditionally motivate people does not work, and even dulls creativity and blocks thinking.
Researchers reported, “As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance… But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.” Money motivates well for single-minded work because it narrows our focus. However, most workers need to be able to think outside the box, and the traditional carrot-and-stick tactic isn’t helping. The secret to high performance is intrinsic drive. Dan Pink identifies these motivators as autonomy (directing our own lives), mastery (getting better at something that matters), and purpose (working toward something larger than ourselves).
There are 53 million millennials in the US workforce (or 1 in 3 workers). If we can collectively learn to harness the power that millennials bring to the business world, it will have huge implications on the overall business landscape. Below are a few pieces of advice that I give to millennials and/or to those managing millennials:
1. Get some grit.
Tenacity, persistence – call it what you will, but it’s a powerful thing. Research by a psychologist who left a high stress management consulting job to teach 7th graders math in NYC public schools (cue applause here) found that IQ was not the most prominent difference between the best and worst students. Success depended on grit: passion and perseverance for long term goals. Even when controlled for other factors (e.g. family income, IQ, safety at school), the most successful students were not necessarily the smartest, but the ones who stuck with it. In fact, she found that grit was usually unrelated or even inversely related to inherent talent. In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell goes so far as to suggest that many of the most successful people have succeeded precisely because of their disadvantages and disabilities, which forced them to develop skills and take risks they otherwise would not have considered.
2. Develop a growth mindset.
Similarly, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck advocates for the power of believing you can improve. Too often we approach learning with a fixed mindset: our intelligence is up to the test and we either pass or fail. But failure and ability to learn are not fixed. Every time you struggle to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in your brain form stronger connections and, over time, you get better. In one year with this type of growth mindset-based classroom, a previously far behind 4th grade class in the South Bronx earned the #1 scores in the state of New York on state math tests. When you are faced with an obstacle, it does not mean you are dumb, it means you’re in the process of getting smarter.
3. Practice humility.
Humility is also known as “being a team player” and “not blaming your circumstances.” In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins characterizes top-notch leaders as being the first to accept blame for problems and the first to share credit for a job well done. This one should come easily for millennials, who grew up working on group projects and playing team sports and group chat video games. You thrive on cooperation and collaborative working environments. So own it – think like a team. If the team succeeds, attribute the success to everyone. If it fails, look inward and do something about it. Don’t blame the investors, the product, or the boss.
4. Embrace the near win.
Sarah Lewis delivers an inspiring talk on the power of the unfinished path. Mastery, she says, is in the reaching, not the arriving. The experts have been saying it all along. “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know” (Einstein). Coming close to what you thought you wanted helps you attain what you never dreamed you could. We are at our best when we are not yet finished. Believing you have already arrived will squelch future growth. (The opposite cognitive bias is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, or “We Are All Confident Idiots” and is often showcased on Jimmy Kimmel’s Lie Witness News. I think I’ll stick with the sages.)
All companies and individuals must work to keep intrinsic motivators strong. Millennials, who already care more about things like social responsibility, employee health, environmental impact, content excellence, treating customers and partners as people, innovation, and technology, are well-equipped to make an impact if they take ownership of their success. To millennials – find that autonomy, mastery, and purpose for yourselves. Be gritty, believe you can improve, be humble, and let the near wins propel you forward.