Yet Another Article About Motivating Millennials - But the Last One You’ll Ever Need to Read

Being a Millennial is interesting because literally nobody likes us. Generation Z mock us and Boomers just think we’re lazy, avocado-on-toast eating losers who’ll never buy a house because we love lattes too much. But are Millennials really just lazy, unmotivated brunch lovers? Do they just hope that granny will die and give them a house while they carry on taking photos of their Starbucks for the ‘Gram? Maybe. Or maybe they’re just not motivated by what society (and business leaders) tell them they should be motivated by.

In what is probably the four millionth article about motivating Millennials, I take a look at the surveys, research, data and some expert opinions to maybe find out something a little bit different about this puzzle (which I did)… And berate myself as a useless leader along the way. On the plus side, at least this is the last article you’ll ever have to read on the subject. Probably.

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A (Fairly) Brief History of Motivation Theories

Long ago, a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor set about trying to crack the code of efficiency and motivation. His Theory of Scientific Management (part of the ‘Efficiency Movement’ which became pivotal in the Progressive Era between the 1890s and 1920s) went a bit like this:

  • Workers don’t particularly like work, so need lots of supervision
  • Workers are paid according to the number of items they produce in a set period of time (known as piece-rate pay)
  • This should lead to workers working extremely hard to maximise their own productivity and, therefore, pay. Simple!

Or, as some of you may know it better, the ‘Carrot and Stick’ approach. Another key player in motivational theories was Douglas McGregor, who was known for Theory X and Theory Y. The former (known as the ‘conventional view’) assumes that employees are lazy and will work as little as possible if they can. Therefore, they’d be motivated more by incentives or threats (there’s that carrot and stick, again).

Theory Y argues the opposite; that humans ARE willing to work and are self-motivating, as long as they are given the autonomy and responsibility to do so. Ohh, interesting. I half imagine Frederick Winslow Taylor spinning in his grave at that; although considering he allegedly used to tie himself down in his bed to reduce movements at night (and therefore preserve energy to be more efficient), maybe he can’t spin in his grave.

Of course, there are dozens of other motivational theories out there that many of you may have heard of — Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberg’s Motivation Theory, Equity Theory, and Goal Setting Theory. All have their own interesting assumptions, but none are without their flaws… Especially when it comes to motivating Millennials.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

How We Motivate Millennials Now

While many progressive companies feel as though they have ‘cracked the code’ of motivating Millennials, it seems as though no one has really moved away from the archaic ‘carrot and stick’ approach. They’ve just put a frock on it and dressed it up to be Instagram-friendly.

Go to any modern workplace and you’ll find beer fridges, ping pong tables, ball pits and plates of free food. I’ll hold my hands up here and say I’ve run my workplace pretty much the same way for as long as I can remember. Christmas parties are trips to Bruges and there are a sickening amount of Krispy Kreme doughnuts available for each monthly meeting. We’re giving our staff carrots in the form of sugary, glazed rings of deliciousness.

So imagine my shock when I ran an employee satisfaction survey and found out my (predominately) Millennial staff weren’t 10/10 happy all round.

“How dare they, I give them first pick of all the best dougnuts!”

Was my first thought…My second thought was:

“What the heck am I doing so wrong?!”

Looking back through the survey, it was clear that while they liked the perks, it really wasn’t what they came to work for. In fact, when asked if they’d like more or less social events, most said less. Ouch, I thought I was the ‘cool boss’ that everyone wanted to hang out with. That stung.

One of the other things I noticed was that a big percentage said they were lacking purpose. Another was that there wasn’t enough autonomy in the roles. Some said they didn’t feel like they learnt enough on the job. Agh, too many things to count. With my head spinning and me wondering how I’d got it so wrong, I asked some experts for advice.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Talking to the Pros

Now, the reason I say this is the fourth millionth article about Millennial motivation is because it most likely is. If you Google ‘motivating Millennials’ you’ll find plenty of stats like these:

I’d seen the stats, I’d asked my staff similar questions, and yet still I was perplexed. How on earth can you provide this purpose and meaning that my generation craved so much? I decided to put the question to some experts in HR, leadership, and Millennials themselves to find out, this is what I got:

“It’s important for me to feel like my work is making a difference to others, and doing so is incredibly motivating.” Emily Deaton, writer at Women’s Health Interactive and Millennial

There’s that purpose again.

“We don’t get down with the traditional ‘leave your self at home, work a 9–5, retire at 65 with a watch and a hand shake’ work setting. We only get one life, as far as we know, so “working for the weekend”… we just can’t get on board with that.” Jay Shifman, Speaker, Coach & Host of Choose Your Struggle Podcast (also a Millennial)


“I’ve found that trying to motivate millennials in the same way as previous generations of employees just doesn’t work and one of the key steps to keeping them actively engaged is to review your job design… If you can build in a degree of flexibility into your job design it will help to keep younger members of the workforce engaged and will encourage their creativity.” Sue Andrews, HR & Business Consultant at KIS Finance and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Flexibility and autonomy.

“I believe that millennials are not motivated by the traditional “carrot and stick” method because we simply care more about our mental health than a job or simply someone else’s feelings.” Amber Williams, MBA, owner of ScentsXchange and Millennial

Health and well-being.

And finally, one of my personal favourites:

“Millennials consider traditional compensation packages suspect. (They might say they’re “sus.”)

They’re not motivated by traditional bonuses any more than they care about bad performance reviews. Millennials crave meaning, expect flexibility and work-life balance and want to feel connected to an organization’s mission.

Firms that hope to thrive with a multi-generational workforce that includes millennials need to up their communication game. Their leaders need to demonstrate (not talk about) leadership, mission and values and frankly, start appealing to workers’ innate sense of purpose. If those things are lacking, paying above industry pay grade won’t matter, and the annual performance review will only p*ss them off.” Laura Handrick, contributing HR Professional at Choosing Therapy and owner of an HR & Business Consulting Agency

Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

News Flash: You’re All Still Wrong

So, here’s the thing. I’ve done the research, I’ve read the stats, I’ve asked the experts, and yet it’s still all wrong. Do you know why? Because, the people that work with me aren’t a percentage or stat. They’re people. Just like economists get things so wrong by assuming we’re all ‘econs,’ as leaders we can also get it so wrong by assuming each and every Millennial (or employee in general) wants exactly the same thing. I went back to my employee satisfaction survey again, the one that had kept me up at night crying at how much I’d failed as a leader.

A large percentage of people wanted more meaning and purpose. Some wanted to socialise less. Some wanted to socialise more (see, I am a cool boss). Some wanted more time in the office (pre-pandemic) and some wanted less. Some wanted more of a challenge with targets, others felt it was too much. Some wanted more training and guidance, some didn’t want any at all. I’d looked at the overall percentages and made a wide judgement based on the numbers. I didn’t look at the results as individuals. My reaction to these results initially was to make company-wide changes, based on the overall ‘winning vote.’ However, in doing so, I’d probably made some of my employees feel worse, because I hadn’t listened to a thing they’d said. I finally realised how I’d failed. I didn’t listen.

So, now you’ve got to the end of this article. I want you to take a step back and think for a moment about how to motivate Millennials… Got it yet? No? Okay, I’ll tell you the not-so-secret-secret.

Ask them.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about my generation, it’s we’re really not afraid to speak up. And if some people are motivated by ball pits and free food, then let them eat cake! But don’t forget those who aren’t, too…

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