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The Question You Should Be Asking Your Employees The Question You Should Be Asking Your Employees
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The Question You Should Be Asking Your Employees

Jo Eisenhart •  November 9, 2015 | Business and Careers

EisenhartcIt seems like every time you turn around there’s another study out about what it takes to motivate employees, and much of the discussion focuses on the newest generation of workers—Millennials. They want to work for companies with a purpose. They want to be rewarded and recognized for their work. They want flexible schedules, collaborative work environments and bosses who inspire. They may even be willing to give up a pay raise in exchange for a greater level of work/life balance.

A generational stereotype is emerging, but I don’t believe it’s a valid basis for determining what motivates the more than 53 million working Millennials. My Baby Boomer contemporaries and I aren’t motivated by the same thing, and I don’t think it’s wise to assume that of any generation.

Motivation is highly personal. If you want to know what motivates a Millennial (or individuals of any age, for that matter), do what great bosses have done since the beginning of time: Ask. One question. One-on-one.

What’s most important to you?

We’re all guilty of assuming that what’s important to us is important to others. For example, if your boss is highly motivated by the potential to advance up the corporate ladder, she may be coaching you through this lens: “Here’s what you need to get ahead, follow me!” But what if you’re motivated by something entirely different? If she doesn’t take the time to understand what’s important to you, the disconnect may leave you feeling unfulfilled. And as your supervisor, she may miss an opportunity to engage you and make the most of what you have to offer the company.

When I talk with members of my team about what’s important to them, we frame the discussion in terms of career drivers. What’s your primary driver? Do you want to get ahead? Make money? Be a leader? Be recognized? Have variety? Make a difference in the world? I’m often surprised by their responses, which is why it’s so important to ask the question.

Of course, I may not be able to fully accommodate the career driver for every member of my team. But when I’m aware of what motivates them as individuals, I can try to create a work experience that—as much as possible—aligns their goals to the broader goals of the company.

Interestingly, I’ve found that while each person on my team has unique motivations, the types of things that motivate today’s workers aren’t all that different than the things employees cared about generations ago. And a new study concludes the same. In its study of Millennials, Myths, Exaggerations and Uncomfortable Truths, IBM found “the fundamental distinction between Millennials and older employees is their digital proficiency, which comes from growing up immersed in a digital world. But for things like career goals, employee engagement, preferred leadership styles and recognition, the study shows that Millennials share many of the same attitudes as Gen X and Baby Boomer employees.”

We’re all human. We’re all unique. And we each have our own priorities, which are not necessarily tied to our generation. That’s why, if you want to know how to motivate someone, you have to ask, “What’s most important to you?” 

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