Generation Me (20 and 30-somethings) grew up in an era of trophies for everyone and grade inflation, which resulted in highly positive self-views. Here’s how to give young employees what they want–a sense of value, praise, and frequent feedback–to encourage better performance from them. From Generation Me.
Helping GenMe workers feel valued is a three-step process. First, tell them why what they are doing is important. A common label for this group is Generation Y, but some say it should instead be spelled Generation Why? This generation wants to know the meaning behind what they are doing—not the philosophical, abstract meaning important to the Boomers, but what it means overall. If the task is important, then they will feel important doing it. For GenMe, there is no better motivator. If possible, tie the job or skill to their eventual career goals. If you can tell them how what they are doing will help them succeed in the future, they will listen.
I once presented my GenMe research to a group of officers in the US Coast Guard. After the talk, one young officer stood up and said, “I want the senior officers to hear the part about explaining why. I really want to know why I’m doing something. It’s not because I’m whining—it’s because it really motivates me.” One of the senior officers commented, “Well, you know, this is the military. Sometimes we’re going to say we need boats in the water, and we won’t be able to tell you why.” “I know,” said the junior officer. “But most of the time, you can.” And that’s the good news: in most businesses, you do have at least a little time to let employees know why what they are doing is important—or at least its larger goal.
One way to meet this goal is to put GenMe’s skills to good use. GenMe does not remember a time when computers did not exist. They are digital natives—the rest of us just immigrated to this interconnected world. It makes sense to use their technological skills as much as possible. Their impatience might just help them find a faster way to do something.
Second, give praise when it’s earned. Many Boomers say that when they were young workers, not getting yelled at was the only praise they received. If they weren’t criticized, they knew they were doing a good job. Now young workers want feedback (including praise) for everything—and they want it now. This may sound like entitlement, but it can actually be a good thing for everyone. Why wait to tell Jared he did a good job on his presentation? And why wait to tell him how he can improve it?
In a video parodying generational workplace training seminars, a dim-witted GenMe employee admits he searched Google instead of relying on the company’s specially commissioned market research. When his manager criticizes him, he says, “I quit. This job isn’t what I thought it would be.” Tongue in cheek, the narrator suggests instead that the manager should offer “overflowing amounts of praise,” then shows her saying, “You’re so smart,” as she pats him on the head like a dog. Satire, yes, but in 2007 the Wall Street Journal noted that many companies were hiring “celebrations assistants” and “praise consultants” to hand out certificates and even throw confetti.
That’s probably going too far. But the idea that no feedback is praise is also not a great system. The best place is somewhere in the middle: praise for work well done, as soon as possible, but with the same principle for criticism. One idea is the “praise sandwich,” beginning with praise, mentioning places for improvement, and ending with praise. That works as long as the criticism is actually getting through. If not, no more sandwich, just meat. Another tip is to use and instead of but. Don’t say, “You worked hard on this, but…,” as that cancels out the praise in the first part of the sentence. Instead, say, “You worked hard on this, and it would be even better if next time…”
Third and last, give feedback more frequently than the classic model of an annual review. To GenMe’ers, a year might as well be a century. If they don’t like the job, they will have left before then. As formal reviews take up a lot of managers’ time, the solution is probably not more frequent formal reviews. But informal feedback frequently is both expected and appreciated by GenMe. In universities, this has taken the form of four or more tests a semester rather than the traditional midterm and final. It means more grading, but students do better because they realize more quickly what they know and don’t know—also a useful correction to their overconfidence.
If you’re GenMe yourself, you might wonder how to get your boss or coworkers to give you more frequent feedback or explain more about what you’re doing. The key is how you frame it. Tell them you want to know the why or want faster feedback because it will help you do a better job. Don’t sound as if you’re just fishing for praise or whining about “why, why, why” you have to do something. Let people know it will increase your motivation and drive, and they’ll be more likely to provide the feedback you crave.