The Secrets to Motivating, Inspiring and Rewarding Millennials

Like previous generations, Gen Y wants to feel understood, valued and respected. HR and business executives can play into these needs by giving millennial employees transparency and flexibility.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher W. Cabrera, founder and president and CEO of Xactly Corp., which sells software and services for the management of sales forces and worker compensation, and we covered everything Gen Y. If you’re only going to read one Ask a Gen Y blog post, you’ve stumbled across a good one.

Cabrera and I discussed the development millennials want and how to best engage and reward them. Below are excerpts from our interview, a great all-encompassing guide for HR leaders developing a young and multigenerational staff.

What do you think Gen Y wants in terms of employee development? cabrera

Cabrera:As the generation that invented Facebook, millennials like to be “liked.” They’ve grown up immersed in social media, where they can get instant gratification from peers just from posting a picture or sharing a recommendation. As such, millennials typically prefer workplaces and managers that offer consistent feedback and insight into their performance, not solely to secure praise, but also to hone their skills and personal brands.

One reason for this mindset is that Gen Y is looking beyond their job in search of something more meaningful – a vocation that unites their personal passions and professional objectives. Millennials approach work from the perspective of “how it will empower me to grow and contribute to the world at large, rather than be part of the rat race.” A UNC study found they’re twice as likely as their managers to place an importance on doing meaningful work. By consistently engaging them in how they are contributing to the organization and the cause, the more it’s worth to them and the harder they’ll work.

What can learning leaders do to help them and engage them in their development?

Cabrera: Some make light of the stereotypical Gen Y’s need for consistent feedback and affirmation, and that’s understandable. Learning how to motivate someone who approaches the world differently can be a challenge, but it’s also a huge opportunity. I’ve seen firsthand that millennials are incredibly hard workers when they are motivated.

Learning leaders can empower managers and mentors to deliver more frequent, smaller acknowledgments of performance. Millennials are eager to develop or refine a skillset that can propel them forward in their vocation. With constant feedback, their current job feels much more valuable as a learning opportunity and, hopefully, as a long-term fit. This is more than just a feel-good thing, though. For starters, when managers and mentors are more engaged in providing feedback they can more clearly see skills gaps in their organization and the training that can be implemented to grow each employee. Understanding and catering to the mindset of those millennials also can improve employee retention, which is a growing issue for businesses when three of five millennials stick around their companies for less than three years.

Once they feel validated and want to stick around, it’s a matter of harnessing their natural drive toward self-improvement. With the popularity of websites about life hacks and four-hour workweeks, millennials are looking for ways to game the system without being dishonest. HR and business leaders can fuel Gen Y’s passion by assigning them meaningful rewards and recognitions that they’ll want to achieve, and mapping them to formal development benchmarks that align to business objectives.

What kind of rewards does Gen Y want?

Cabrera: First off, it’s not just about money — considering the UNC study also found millennials are about half as likely to consider high pay important, as compared to their bosses. While monetary incentives like bonuses and pay increases can motivate, I’ve found the trick is inspiring performance, and millennials are inspired by more than dollar signs. Here are a few things that help motivate Gen Y:

Promotions: Millennials gravitate to frequent markers of progress, akin to the gold stars they grew up earning. To keep them engaged and feeling like they’re growing, find ways to recognize their stellar performance through title and responsibility upgrades.

For example, in our Gen-Y heavy organization, we chose to subdivide certain job titles, so employees can be promoted more frequently for meeting certain benchmarks, rather than waiting (im)patiently for big promotions and raises.

Culture: With mobility and ubiquitous connectedness leaving less distinction around work and play, businesses should consider ways to cultivate a workplace culture that both works hard, but is fun and personally rewarding. While the perks of Silicon Valley – free gourmet lunch, daily yoga sessions, bring your dog to work (every) day – get lots of attention by the media, culture goes beyond these perks. Plenty of people will show up for the job that promises mini golf and filet mignon at lunch, but grass-fed beef only gets you in the door. It’s culture, recognition, and a sense of belonging that keeps Gen Y in the office. For our organization, it means celebrating success in fun ways, but also ensuring we are learning from failures and mistakes so we can grow as an organization. It also includes giving back to the community in which we work. Millennials in our organization have strongly supported our philanthropic efforts and noted how this culture of giving back enriches their work experience and overall positive feelings towards the company.

Freedom: As smartphones and 24/7 connectivity allow work to sneak into social hours, millennials also expect their work day has similar flexibility. They can work from anywhere – why should they be chained to their desks? Also, millennials want to travel and explore the wide world, with the Boston Consulting Group reporting that they harbor a greater desire to visit every continent than preceding generations. Reward their tenure and performance by giving them opportunities to work remotely or even at a different office, if your company is able.

How is that different from what previous generations have requested?

Cabrera: As mentioned, money is less of a factor than it has ever been before. Many millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession, and with corporate job prospects scarce, they got used to following a less conventional path. With that, they believe that the way to differentiate a good job from a bad one is no longer just the paycheck, but instead finding something that inspires them.

Adept at scrolling through social feeds on their smartphones, Gen Y is particularly savvy with technology and has high expectations about how it works. Give them intuitive Web-based and mobile apps to track their development and growth, so pegging their performance is as simple as checking the weather.

Like previous generations, Gen Y wants to feel understood, valued and respected. HR and business executives can play into these needs by giving millennial employees transparency and flexibility. Rather than ruling from behind closed doors, leaders should engage millennials by sharing how their contribution feeds into the bigger picture, and even giving them a share of the success through bonuses and rewards.

With millennials gradually becoming the majority of the workplace, this attitude has begun to pervade businesses, which is positive for all generations. Constant feedback, clear incentives and corporate transparency inspire employees of all ages.