How ‘meaningful’ work can motivate your millennial employees

Every day we face dilemmas and choices, or the all-important question from our wives, “What do you want for dinner?” Let’s be honest, the answer “I don’t know” is not going to lead to the successful outcome of getting dinner on the table.

Bill Haas

Given that fact, let’s consider one of the many challenges we face in the workplace from younger employees in Generation Y, also known as Millennials. Most shop owners and many managers do not hail from this much-discussed generation. We come from the era of when you were told to do something, you did it … or else!

Millennial employees bring forth a whole new dynamic into the workplace, one in which we need to understand their reasons, or lack thereof, for wanting to complete a task when asked.

At a conference I attended last year, I listened to a male Millennial’s presentation on his perspective of the workplace. It was interesting, with great insights on what they expect from a job. He stressed that Millennials want meaningful work and then shared a story about one of his early jobs working in the fast-food industry.

One day, his manager told him to go to the freezer and bring back some french fries. The young man’s reply to his manager was a firm and resounding, “No!” So what do you think happened next?

What do you think might have happened next?

  • The Millennial is reprimanded?
  • He’s again told to do it, but this time the manager uses a more forceful tone?
  • He is sent home?

No. Instead, the manager carried out the task himself, going to the freezer and bringing back the fries.

How often do you get frustrated with the lack of participation from an employee to the point that you simply perform the task yourself? Probably more often than you care to admit. In situations like this, the first question you likely ask yourself is, “Why did they say no?” The second question might be, “How do I motivate employees to perform the tasks that need to be accomplished?” But the question you really should be asking is, “What can I do to make the job meaningful to the employee?”

In the instance above, the young man didn’t want to get french fries because he felt as if he was the only one who had to get them, and he had to go into the freezer to get them, which he likened to a journey into the frozen tundra of Northern Wisconsin. From his perspective, that didn’t represent “meaningful” work.

We all know there are certain members of our team we have to deal with in individual ways. Still, this doesn’t mean we should give them preferential treatment or enable them not to perform. As an organizer of the workplace, we want to keep our business flowing in a positive direction. To do this, Millennial employees need to know their purpose and how what they do affects the company and the customers the business serves.

Consider that the fast-food restaurant manager could have tried a different approach. Instead of barking orders, he could have tried rephrasing his request in such a way as to include the desired outcome. In other words, with an explanation of why he wanted the fries.

The manager could have given the young man the “responsibility” to see that the fryer never ran out of French fries. With this explanation, the employee would have had a purpose and a task that would be vitally important to delivering a desired product to the customer.

The employee would then better understand that his failure to complete the task would lead to customer dissatisfaction, because, after all, if the fryer runs out of fries, customers have to wait for their orders. And customers at fast-food restaurants want their food fast. Therefore, preventing the fryer from running out of fries becomes meaningful work.

As younger men and women continue to enter the workforce, we will face, more than ever, how to best use their talents and motivate them to accomplish their tasks. We have to manage the expectations and responsibilities of our employees by sharing the expectations and the greater purpose of how a task will serve the customers.

The Millennial wants to know how what they do makes positive contributions to the product or service the company provides. Your job, as a leader, is to make sure your employees, especially the Millennial employees, understand that the work they do is meaningful.

Try a new approach in other areas of your life, too. At home, you might tell your children to pick up their toys – so that the dog won’t chew them up. At the grocery store, you might remind the parcel stacker to place your bread on top this time – so that it doesn’t get smashed. At work, give your Millennial employees a purpose; let them know their roles affect the outcome of the business and give them a sense of the impact their contributions make. This will give them the purpose they need to be successful working with you.

And the next time your wife asks, “What do you want for dinner?” try a new approach. Make dinner for her, or maybe take her out eat.