Gen Y Bite #4 on Generational Workplace Motivation: How Much Praise is Healthy? posted on August 19, 2012
Today we are going to cover the fourth piece of our series about generational workplace motivation, originating from a recent survey conducted by Caitlin Shea. She set out to test the claim that Baby Boomers, Generation X and Gen Y differ in motivation at work (for more details on the survey, please check previous blogs.) After having looked at Challenge, Compensation and Enjoyment in Gen Y Bites #1, #2 and #3, we are closing the report with the second extrinsic subscale of workplace motivation: Outward Recognition.

Outward recognition refers to being concerned with external recognition and praise for one’s work. In contrast to enjoyment, outwardly motivated individuals are primarily concerned with the praise and recognition they can receive from a task, rather than the inherent satisfaction of completing the task itself. Here is what Caitlin’s research has shown:

Baby Boomers compared to Gen X → No differences
Baby Boomers compared to Gen Y → Gen Y more motivated by outward recognition
Gen X compared to Gen Y → Gen Y more motivated by outward recognition

According to the survey, Gen Y reported to be more motivated by outward recognition when compared to the other two generations. For Gen Y, it is important that other people know how well they are doing in their work and even that they are doing better than fellow employees. These findings are consistent with other research data available from various resources, some of which reporting as much as 98 percent of Gen Y respondents who would like to be provided with feedback and recognition about their performance. And not enough with that, the majority actually wants feedback to be continuous and frequent – in other words, ongoing!

But is this really surprising in a world in which feedback is just a Facebook “like” click away? This generation grew up in an era in which feedback is available at their fingertips any time, whether in form of customer reviews of products purchased or ratings of service providers pretty much located anywhere in the world. Even a remote holiday destination can be checked out online before I risk making a booking. And if there isn’t an official website to consult, my social networks will easily reveal what friends and contacts think about something or someone, including myself: from LinkedIn recommendations to Facebook comments about the pictures I post – feedback is everywhere solicited and unsolicited. So can you imagine how antique and outdated it sounds to a Gen Yer that traditional performance reviews are conducted only ONCE a year?

Another aspect comes into play when I think about this. If feedback is anywhere, anytime, and is given solicited and unsolicited in various forums, then what type of feedback do you think people want to see and read about themselves? Do they really seek constructive suggestions about what and how they can improve? In other words: If you post a photo of your new haircut on Facebook, do you sincerely want to hear what your friends think about it or rather hear exclamations of generous praise and compliments about the new look? Of course, you could argue that it’s basically human to prefer positive feedback but for Gen Y, positive feedback is not only a human need, it is also a habit!

Want proof? Well, just look around and observe parents and their children! While today’s kids do not belong to Generation Y anymore, the over-protective parenting style you find today is a direct derivate of how Gen Y children have been raised a decade or two ago. Not only did their “helicopter parents” cater for all their emotional, educational and physical needs, they also gave them lavish feedback for practically anything they did! Every mediocre achievement was rewarded with praise or a medal, every baby step and near-to-accomplishment showered with verbal acknowledgement. Now and in recent years, children demand and enforce full attention on them and parents are competing with each other over the tiniest successes their kids get honored for. It’s no coincidence that Gen Yers are also known as “Trophy Kids”!

So yes, Gen Y wants feedback, continuously, frequently, but ideally also exclusively with positive content. Can you actually imagine what would happen if a Gen Y received continuous and frequent feedback focusing on serious performance improvement needs? Even though “feedback” is on top of their wish list, I doubt that this person would stay in their job for very long, if they were being told every day what to improve. So let’s get real and acknowledge the fact that it is outward recognition that motivates Gen Y, not feedback! Consequently, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Gen Y expects hand-holding treatment in the workplace.

Now let’s run a little reality check here: Honestly, how reasonable is that? Do managers have the time to fulfill this need even if they wanted to? Nowadays, many companies have pretty flat hierarchies since people often work in complex matrix organizations and in virtual project teams. Managers frequently have a large number of functional direct reports, some of them remote reporting relationships, and they are just too busy to pamper them all with the attention and encouragement they may need.

On the other hand, there are a number of creative options employers could try out; they do not need to revamp their entire performance management process (even though a shorter cycle would not harm anyone).Why not implement a similar “like” button for your employees where colleagues and supervisors can compliment people on their actions or emails? An easy “comment” functionality, maybe on the intranet, for people to express praise for what went well? It’s not for nothing that companies start to establish internal social networks trying to replicate the appeal and social glue of Facebook and alike. And while you Baby Boomers and Gen Xers may smile thinking this is childish and doesn’t belong into the workplace – think again and consider the added motivational value you may generate from your Gen Y talent if you manage them right, i.e. in their language addressing their needs. Very soon you won’t be able to ignore them anymore because they are the only future talent out there!

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