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Ladder level trumps generational differences


July 2, 2013
By Dorothy Cotton

1036 words

HEAD: Ladder level trumps generational differences

You young-uns are going to drive me nuts. Yeah, you know who you are: they call you the Millenials or Generation Y, so you were born somewhere between 1981 and 2000.

You’re lazy, lack a work ethic and are hard to motivate. You want everything to be fun and interesting all the time or else you pack your bags and move on. Where’s your loyalty? Have you never heard the phrase “pay your dues?” And what’s with all the questions? You want reasons for everything, you want me to explain, you expect a pat on the head every day. Ok, you are pretty good at getting things done – but why does it always have to get done YOUR way?

Back in the day when I was a puppy (I am a Boomer, of course), I was idealistic and individualistic, just like Gen Y – but hell, I knew I had to follow the established order and do as I was told. I understood that perks come as rewards, not rights and that company loyalty was the road to success.

If this is starting to sound a lot like schmaltzy pop psychology, that’s probably because it IS schmaltzy pop psychology. I could go on to add drivel and platitudes about Gen X too – comfortable with technology, left alone at home as kids so self-reliant and independent, entrepreneurial… blah blah blah.

A lot of attention is paid these days to generational difference and, in many ways, rightly so. It would be a pretty scary world if our kids were just like us and everyone followed the same path growing up. So to some extent, it does make sense to look at generational differences in the workplace – just as one must attend to gender and cultural differences. In other words – news flash – not everyone is the same. There is vast literature about generational differences in work values, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, attitudes toward change, leadership and communication styles, attitudes toward work life balance…

However, it seems we might have gotten a little carried away about the generational differences. Yeah, the young folks are different from us old fogies – but it turns out that much of that difference may have nothing to do with cohort and everything to do with where we sit in our organizational hierarchy. I am guessing you’re not going to finds a whole lot of Millenials in senior ranks or a lot of Boomers in the front lines.

A recent study by a bunch of folks at the Center for Creative Leadership (and a few other places <1>) found that when it comes to motivation, where you sit in the hierarchy has a lot more to do with how you operate than your generation.

The study’s purpose was to see whether the purported differences in level and type of workplace motivation are better explained by generation or managerial level. Motivation, of course, comes in several flavours.

External motivation stems from outside factors like money, approval and avoidance of punishment, so you might engage in certain behaviours at work because they pay you to do so, you don’t want to get in trouble or you want a promotion.

“Introjected motivation” causes employees to do stuff because they believe they “should,” even though they might not have yet fully bought into the behaviour. You might volunteer for a certain committee or task force because you have a vague sense that employees should do stuff like this – even though you might not really be into whatever the committee is doing.

Then you have “identified motivation.” At this stage of the game, you are doing something because it is consistent with your own personal values and goals. The activity might get you brownie points – or not, but you feel strongly about it and it means something to you so you do it.

The fourth level is intrinsic motivation. Activities at this level are so ingrained and so automatic that you might not even think about them. They are just part of who you are.

As you progress from external through intrinsic motivation, one thing that changes is the level of self determination. When you are acting from extrinsic motivation, outside forces largely call the shots. However, as you progress through the levels, you become more internally or self directed.

Popular wisdom would have it that the Gen Y folks would be more inclined toward extrinsic motivation and the Boomers are into intrinsic motivation. As it turns out, there were only very small differences between generations on the measures in this study.

What really made a difference was where people were in the organizational hierarchy rather than their generation. Those at different managerial levels express different types of the aforementioned levels of motivation. People at higher levels are more likely to express greater identified and intrinsic motivation. It is true that people at the top express less external motivation than people nearer the bottom – but in large part, this makes sense. When you earn less money, have less power, likely have greater demands on your money (as you may be younger and paying a mortgage and supporting kids), the extrinsic motivational factors are going to be big.

It is interesting to speculate about whether people progress from having primarily external or extrinsic motivation to having the other sorts of motivation as they go up the professional ladder – or whether those who start out with less extrinsic motivation are more likely to progress up the ladder. There are a lot of questions unanswered – and some of the answers are complex.

I think that at least part of the take home message is people who are young and have different work attitudes may have them partly because they are part of a certain generation – but they may also simply be young people in lower level positions. Heck, they might not even be all that different from how us Boomers were at that age.

Let’s not get TOO carried away about generational differences.

<1> Jennifer Deal, Sarah Stawiski, Laura Graves, William Gentry, Todd Weber and Marian Ruderman (2013). Motivation at work: which matters more, generation or managerial level?