Employee Engagement

Millennials In the Workplace: Not So Different After All


The millennial generation, unlike any before it, is receiving an unprecedented amount of media attention given the growing awareness that they will increasingly comprise a significant portion of the workforce over the next five to ten years. Despite the growing research touting how the generations are different and should be treated differently, have you ever wondered if they really are? If so, the results of the 2014 Millennial Impact Report by Achieve may help to shed some light because it highlights the attitudes about work culture, relationships and resources and their role across the work lifecycle (from hire to retention). 

However, if you have been reading the research on employee engagement or have read some recent bestselling business books, then you may have noticed that the so-called millennial differences are perhaps not so unique after all. We venture a little further in our hypothesis by proposing that the changes we are seeing are more a function of the now changed psychological contract between employers and employees. 

Gone are the days of climbing the corporate ladder on your way to a golden handshake. In their absence, today’s employees want continuous learning as a way to secure their futures. They are spending long hours at work with recent data from the Federal Reserve Economic Data Report (2013) confirming that Americans work more hours a week than any other industrialized nation. So while employees have come to accept that technology can blur the boundaries between personal life and work, they have also realized the value of meaningful relationships in the workplace as well as the importance of work that helps to make the world a better place. 

Furthermore, it is no coincidence that both of these factors probably also make the work itself and the continuous demands on their personal time a lot more tolerable or enjoyable. In other words, building deep relationships and contributing to “cause work” is likely a buffer against the stressors that might normally lead to decreased engagement, burnout or quitting a job. 

Let’s begin by taking a look at the idea of cause work and how the Achieve report says it plays an important role in hiring, retention and shaping culture. We believe all of this to be true. In addition, we propose that this is not a new idea. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink (2009) wrote about what he called the surprising truth about what motivates us. He explains that we are all motivated intrinsically toward autonomy, mastery and purpose. He further explains that “our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities” is the new key to high performance. 

Similarly, Sirota (2005) in The Enthusiastic Employee introduced the Three Factor Theory of Employee Engagement, which describes the need for Equity, Achievement and Camaraderie in order to improve and maintain positive employee engagement. Specifically, the Achievement factor in his theory speaks to the need to take pride in one’s accomplishments by doing things that matter and doing them well. Even Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter as early as 1997 were writing about the importance of “meaningful and valued work” in The Truth About Burnout as a means to improve engagement and reduce stress. 

An additional finding from the Millennial Impact Report indicates that employees prefer to work with fellow employees as part of this cause work, which likely has an impact on engagement and decreases turnover. This echoes similar ideas proposed by Sirota (2005) who spoke of camaraderie, Pink (2009) who focused on “communities being unified around a common purpose” and Maslach and Leiter (1997) who discussed “a sense of community.” 

The bottom line is that we are not disagreeing that these are all important variables but that to say that they are strictly engagement indicators for the millennial generation might be a missed opportunity in that Benko and Anderson (2010) in The Corporate Lattice speak to an oncoming convergence of needs between the generations. And, indeed most of the research on engagement also echoes many of the other key findings of the Millennial Impact Report. 

In conclusion, the 2014 Millennial Impact Report adds great depth to our knowledge of what makes Millennial employees tick; however, we think it is an error to assume that it describes only the Millennial generation and believe this data is actually applicable across the spectrum to all employees signifying additional data in a shift in the psychological contract between employers and employees. Furthermore, we think this topic is only beginning to be understood and requires additional study in order to understand its long-term implications for how we work and live.

About:  Eugene Dilan, Psy.D., SPHR is the Founder and President of the Dilan Consulting Group. Eric Prensky, Ph.D. is a Senior Consultant with the Dilan Consulting Group.

This article was first published in the APA Center for Organizational Excellence: Good Company Newsletter (August, 2014). 

Employee Engagement - Beyond the Golden Rule


Understanding Engagement

The dictionary describes engagement as “the act of engaging or state of being engaged,” but the term is much more complicated in reality. Experts do not agree on what it means in the workplace, or how to achieve it. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, to be sure, but success can be achieved if one understands the currencies of engagement and moves beyond the

Golden Rule to the Platinum Rule.

Some define employee engagement as a state of mind where one feels satisfied, empowered and committed at work. Others suggest it is characterized by such behaviors as persistence and initiative. Still others describe it as innate personal characteristics, like the right attitude, level of energy or point of view. Some define engagement as a combination of all of these. But, confusion over definition cannot distract from the importance of engagement. There is widespread agreement that an engaged workforce leads to higher retention and productivity, lower stress, better customer satisfaction and ultimately results. The cost of not addressing engagement is tremendous. A 2013 Gallup report showed that 70 percent of workers are not engaged or actively disengaged, placing the annual estimated loss in U.S. business productivity at $450-$550 billion.

With so many models for how to improve engagement, which is the best one? Unfortunately, there is no one model for optimizing engagement because not all individuals or organizations are alike.

The 12 Currencies of Engagement

People are like nations—that is, they will accept some currencies, but not others. Even so, some currencies are universally accepted. Examining a cross section of the most popular and researched models shows 12 factors most consistently reported to correlate highly with engagement:

  1. Engaged leaders and managers and an organizational culture that is nurtured at the top levels.
  2. Trusted leadership developed by honoring commitments and doing what is right.
  3. Timely, honest and consistent two-way communication.
  4. Amiable relationships with immediate supervisors.
  5. Respectful, collegial relationships with coworkers who do great work.
  6. Fairness in compensation, workload and negotiations.
  7. Pride in an organization’s mission, products or accomplishments.
  8. Appropriate and challenging opportunities for learning and career growth.
  9. Rewards or recognition for achievements, however small.
  10. Ability to influence decisions and have some control over the way one’s work is done, scheduled and managed.
  11. Flexibility in work location or methods, among others.
  12. Accommodation of personal needs.

This list reflects the most powerful currencies for inspiring engagement. But how do you know which currency or combination of currencies will be most effective? By knowing your audience.

Moving from Gold to Platinum

When it comes to culture and engagement, most thinking stems from the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is a good start, but there is a better way. Leaders must strive for the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would like done unto them.” In other words, don’t assume others want what you want. Treat them the way they prefer to be treated.

In applying the Platinum Rule, we need to embrace the fact that engagement is personal, must be customized and is an ongoing, iterative process highly influenced by fluid dynamics between leaders and followers. This leaves many leaders wondering if it is possible, or realistic, to achieve it. The answer is yes, if leaders prioritize and invest time in relationships and building leadership capabilities.

To build leadership capabilities, consider using Emotional Intelligence as the foundation. Leaders who understand themselves and regulate their own behavior generally are more attuned to what is happening with their people. Ultimately, the leader’s ability to consistently deliver the right currency at the right time determines his or her effectiveness at engagement.

The Platinum Rule begins with active listening. Effective leaders notice that their people constantly communicate their desires through words and deeds. They become attuned to the currencies used by their direct reports and quickly gain insight into how best to engage and keep them motivated. This is where the Golden Rule provides a useful signpost; they probably behave toward others the way they wish to be treated. This method of assessing needs and wants also works up and across the chain of command.

Another approach, so simple that it is often overlooked, is asking people directly. In 2005, Sirota coined the term, “stay interview” to describe an ongoing, informal dialogue where one seeks feedback on the reasons why employees stay, matters that are going well or not and one’s performance as a leader. The goal is to stay connected. The 12 engagement factors can help, but it is essential to recognize that leadership behaviors are meant to drive and shape organizational culture.

Everything a leader does and says, consciously or unconsciously, models what is acceptable or unacceptable. It influences the choices one makes regarding strategy, structure, polices, procedures and their hiring and reward decisions. In short, employee engagement is not a one-shot effort to check off. It is a concerted effort to develop a partnering culture. Once you have learned what currency people want, you need to identify how frequently they want it.

An investment in your people will not go unrewarded. If nothing else, time spent getting to know them will communicate one’s genuine interest in them as fellow human beings, which itself goes a long way toward developing engagement. 

About:  Eugene Dilan, Psy.D. is the Founder and CEO of the Dilan Consulting Group. For more on Powerful Employee Engagement, visit our organizational development page.