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Jul 30, 2013

When organizations set about to segment their employee populations, they often begin with the familiar demographic groups: Matures, Boomers, Gen X and Millennials.

Then they try to pinpoint the behavioral differences of employees across these segments. The goal is to educate managers about how age differences influence workplace attitudes and behaviors.

The problem is that managers don’t lead segments – they lead individuals.

Every one of us, regardless of when we were born, are part of Generation Me. And the message from Generation Me is this: don’t lump me in with a bunch of people whose birthdays happen to be within a few years of mine. Treat me as the unique employee I am, not as a faceless clone from a demographic cohort.

Engagement has nothing to do with age

But, you protest, surely people of different ages want different things from their work experience? Of course they do. Towers Watson research confirms some of those differences.

For younger workers choosing an employer, career advancement and learning opportunities carry more weight than job security. In the age 50-plus crowd, job security and a convenient work location outweigh both of these as job choice criteria. Health care and retirement benefits obviously have greater importance for older workers, whereas younger workers may care more about their ability to balance work with the rest of their lives.

But these patterns focus on programs. As we all know, reward programs have relatively little effect on how people engage with their work and forge bonds with their colleagues.

When we’ve looked at the drivers of employee engagement (defined as the willingness to invest discretionary effort in a job), we’ve found that the key factors simply do not vary significantly across age groups. The same elements – the quality of leadership competence; the ability to manage stress and workload; and the presence of energizing and meaningful goals – occupy the top three slots for survey respondents younger than age 30, between 30 and 39, and older than 50.

What motivates each individual?

When it comes to engagement, age is just a number. It says very little about what energizes an individual employee.

The differences that matter don’t necessarily follow demographic patterns – they follow individual differences in disposition, life situation and personal aspirations. For most of us, what we want from work depends far more on who we are and where we’re going than on the number of calendar pages we’ve turned.

Which means that managers must put aside the demographic profiles and spend time understanding what motivates each individual. How can they do that?

Conversations. Managers must have the time – and take the time – to explore with each person what they expect from their work and what they have to give. This means probing for insights in three critical areas:

1. Work itself

Clever managers can work with employees to customize aspects of the job to fit individuals’ dispositions and needs. This doesn’t mean rewriting every job description. It does mean looking for subtle ways to let people decide how they will approach the tasks on their to-do lists.

Managers can help by asking these questions:

  • What kind of work energizes them and what kind frustrates them?
  • What makes them eager to come to work in the morning and what do they dread?
  • When are they most energized or most frustrated?
  • What forms of pressure are stimulating and what forms are distressing?
  • What kind of impact do they envision making through their work?

2. Rewards

Company programs may be largely pre-determined, but many forms of intrinsic reward lie outside the bounds of compensation and benefit structures and within the control of managers.

Important questions for managers to ask include:

  • Can work help someone fulfill a broader purpose, and if so, what purpose?
  • What types of challenge do they embrace and what types do they try to avoid?
  • How comfortable are they with working autonomously and how much self-determination do they seek?
  • When they think about the non-monetary return on their investment of energy and time in their jobs, what form does that return take?

3. Learning and development

The opportunity to grow and gain mastery of a job routinely appears among the main drivers of employee motivation.

On the one hand, career advancement may mean one thing to most younger workers and something different to company veterans. On the other, virtually everyone will have some personal vision of a potential future path with the organization.

It’s the manager’s job to discover these individual aspirations, by asking questions like: What knowledge and skills do they most want to master? How do they prefer to learn? What have been their most rewarding learning experiences? When they define what growth means for them, what does that definition entail?

A social contract for each individual

Ultimately, all of this calls on managers to craft an individual social contract with each person. This doesn’t mean changing the compensation program or modifying the benefits offering for every employee – doing that is neither practical nor legal.

What is practical is for managers to use all of the non-transactional, intrinsic elements at their disposal to reward and recognize people for their individual contributions. Research into the effects of customized deals shows that they increase the sense of obligation people feel toward the company and nourish the commitment to reciprocity.

These strengthened bonds constitute the payoff for the time and effort managers must invest in discovering and acting on the workplace requirements of each employee.

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