Engagement at Work: Millennials and Beyond

I recently finished reading two books on workplace engagement that I picked up at my local public library. The first of these books was The Progress Principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011) and the second was What Millennials want from Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today’s Workforce by Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson (McGraw-Hill Education, 2016).

Both books provided advice for organizations based on the results of large-scale qualitative research projects. Amabile and Kramer had collected journal entries from employees in several organizations over periods of several months. Deal and Levenson had gathered data through interviews, surveys, and focus groups. Both included data from employees in professional, technical, and supervisory roles and although the authors were writing from different perspectives and with a different focus (psychological interpretations of employee motivations vs. addressing stereotypes of millennial workers), they conclusions were surprisingly similar.

For Amabile and Kramer, the key to employee engagement was creating a great inner work life which involves “giving people something meaningful to accomplish…It requires clear goals, autonomy, help, and resources – what people need to make real progress in their daily work. And it depends on showing respect for ideas and the people who create them.” (Amabile & Kramer, 2011, p. 2). Deal and Levenson stated that engaging millennials boils down to the following: “Millennials want to do interesting work with people they enjoy, for which they are well paid, and still have enough time to live their lives as well as work.” (Deal & Levenson, 2016, p. 1).

Both books provided lists of recommendations for managers which are applicable to a broad range of work environments and which are applicable to workers of any age and seniority level with the organization. The following table outlines some of the recommendations included in these two books.

Recommendations from “The Progress Principle” Recommendations from “What Millennials want from Work”
  • Set clear goals
  • Allow autonomy
  • Provide resources
  • Give enough time – but not too much
  • Help with the work
  • Learn from problems and successes
  • Allow ideas to flow
  • Make work interesting
  • Provide frequent feedback
  • Encourage employees to contribute ideas
  • Be a good corporate citizen
  • Provide opportunities for workplace friendships
  • Provide opportunities for development, especially mentorship programs
  • Set the stage and get out of the way
  • Provide needed resources
  • Set goals and hold employees accountable
  • Allow for work-life balance (by not requiring face time for its own sake, allowing for flexible careers, and smoothing out spikes in workload)

The first key area of overlap between these two set of recommendations concerns work-life balance. Although this is more heavily emphasized in “What Millennials want from Work”, both books emphasize the importance of not burning out employees by giving them a reasonable amount of time to complete tasks. Amabile and Kramer dispute the idea that pressure makes employees work hard, finding instead that employees were more creative when working under less demanding circumstances. Both described employees being willing to put in more hours and effort in their jobs when managers allowed them the opportunity to take time off when needed to engage in life activities ranging from spending time with children to attending classes.

The second key area of overlap was setting clear goals. Employees who do not feel that they are accomplishing goals at work are going to be less motivated than employees who have a goal to work toward. Both described the demotivating effects of “busy work” or projects that seemed to go nowhere on employees.

A third key area of overlap between the analyses in both of these books was an emphasis on intrinsic motivation. Both described employees as highly intrinsically motivated to succeed at work, but that poor management can kill this motivation. The key to maintaining intrinsic motivation according to these authors was for managers to provide a balance of autonomy and support in allowing employees to work to achieve clearly defined work goals.

Featured image by Elizabeth Hahn

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