How to Motivate Millennials (and Everyone Else)

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By Rebecca Palmer


As someone who loves avocado toast, kale, and rosé — and as someone born between 1980 and 2000 — I am somewhat of an expert on Millennials.


A common refrain in management circles is frustration in understanding or motivating Millennials to work for or engage with their organization.


Often called digital natives for the way they were raised alongside technology from an early age, Millennials were also raised alongside ad creep and have developed a tolerance to traditional marketing techniques. On top of that, the Great Recession, rather than making Millennials more profit-driven, has taught them to be savvy consumers with their limited resources and to focus more on the things money can’t buy.


All these factors can make it seem that Millennials are hard to reach and harder to motivate. But despite the countless think pieces over the years touting how different Millennials are, at the end of the day, we all want the same things: personal and professional fulfillment.


With that in mind, here are some tips to help motivate Millennials — and everyone else!


    Tell them when they’re doing something right. Contrary to popular belief, Millennials neither expect nor want trophies for every minor accomplishment. But everyone appreciates being told when they’ve done a job well. This is also an excellent way to promote and encourage ideal behaviors or best practices. For members, the same effect can be reached with articles or social media kudos.

    Busywork is anti-productive. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials are the most highly educated generation to date. As such, giving them mindless or seemingly pointless busywork can be a signal to them that they can dial it back. That brain-numb feeling can leave them demotivated for the rest of the day. We all accept that sometimes we have to do things that are less than stimulating, but a sharp mind can be blunted when the bulk of the work is dull and repetitive — particularly for the kind of creative people who work in media and publishing. For the must-do mindless tasks, make sure they understand why it is important. Where in the big picture does it fit? Being able to see the specific role they are playing can make the task more rewarding, even if it is still mindless.

    Take advantage of the propensity to multitask. A common complaint about Millennials is their addiction to their smartphones, but what’s being discussed less is that the constant connectedness of the smartphone, combined with the general hustle of daily life in the 21st century, has made Millennials consummate multitaskers. For them, it’s nothing special to shoot out an email while answering the phone with one ear and listening to a hot new artist on the other. You can leverage this skill by giving an employee a group of tasks for the week and giving them the freedom to hop from task to task as needed.

    Emphasize work-life balance. As hardcore multitaskers, just because a Millennial has left the office doesn’t mean they have stopped mulling over a problem that might have arisen during the course of the day. Sometimes the workload can be seem heavy, but everyone — not just Millennials — will reach a point of diminishing returns if forced to endlessly grind away at the same thing. Encouraging people to get out, take a break, or take a vacation will allow them to recharge their minds and bodies, opening the door to not just refreshed productivity but to new ideas and novel solutions. When you get too caught up toiling on the trees, you miss the forest. Take a step back and you may see a simple, different approach to get it done in half the time with a quarter of the effort.

    Expect some differences, but embrace them when you can. Millennials have been accused of a lot of crazy things over the years, but being mind-readers is not among them. A crucial part of being a good manager is delegating, but if you give no instruction, you can’t be upset if the final product isn’t what you expected. Sometimes people will find a creative, unexpected way to complete a task in a way that turns out better than expected, but not always. Millennials don’t need to be micromanaged, but no one is born knowing everything.

    Listen and embrace differences. Many Millennials have chosen to go into nonprofit and association work because making a difference is important to them. They will gladly devote their considerable energies to helping your organization achieve its goals if you only let them. Fostering open communication can turn the very differences between you and your Millennial employees and members into an immense boon. It’s true for all industries but particularly for creative fields like media and publishing: Ignoring the contributions of your team or treating them like cogs is no way to motivate them to apply their best ideas and unique talents to your organization.

Rebecca Palmer is the acquisitions editor of General Dentistry for the Academy of General Dentistry.