Motivation for Millennials

I’ve been hypothesizing about this for a few years now as I see generational gaps and differences that the field of behavior analysis doesn’t yet seem to be addressing very eloquently. Even the giants in Organizational Behavior Management (the organizational “branch” if you will, of my science) just don’t really seem to get it. They water down the big picture by talking about how to create creativity in workplaces where nobody was hired to be creative. What about companies where everyone is there to build something new? Where is the behavior analysis for start-ups? Where is the behavior analysis for innovators and “out-of-the-box” thinkers of the Millennial Generation? I mean isn’t this the big question everyone is trying to solve and only Google really seems to be good at?

There is one person who seems to have gotten close and he did it during a time of economic distress. In 2009, Daniel H. Pink wrote Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (for the quick…ish and dirty, see his Ted Talk below.)

This book is filled with lots of exciting prospects that meet the need of a new generation. It is also not written by a Behavior Analyst even though it makes many claims about Behavioral Science and therefore there are also a lot of things in this book to be extremely cautious about.

But let’s start with laying out the issue at hand, as I see it.

I believe that Millennials differ from the workforce of those that came before them in one very important way that organizations need to be ready to take on. We (yes I am one of them) want what many generations before us have wanted out of work. We want to enjoy it. Actually, we want to enjoy all of life not just the part that happens when the kids go off to college. We heard the generation before us telling us to live our lives to fullest and that “if we aren’t happy doing what we are doing, we should change it”. We don’t want to do what many Baby Boomers are doing, after realizing they weren’t doing what they loved too late and are now changing their careers in their 60s (see Cindy from season 11 of Project Runway). We want to be doing that now. The difference really lies in the fact that for the first time, we require it. If we don’t get it we are going to change jobs, over and over again until we find it or we will create our own opportunity….or we’ll move to Mexico and surf until we come up with the next 10 billion dollar app that will change the world :) We are mobile and we do not settle. And quite frankly…can you blame us? We are asking to be happy, challenged and fully engaged in what we do. To find fulfillment in it versus a fat paycheck. To have to ability to enjoy life. NOW. Not “one day when the kids are grown”.

My thoughts on the “solution” are not revolutionary on the matter. They are behavior analytic. The issue for me is just that I haven’t found anyone (yet) in my field catching a major stride in the industries that are making the biggest waves. Or, for that matter, in the direction that professions are headed for my generation and those that will follow. As we continue to automate our world, it is my belief that there will be more and more demand for behaviors related to such things as innovation and creativity or solving problems that have yet to be solved (what Daniel Pink calls Heuristic Tasks) and less on those that have a more straightforward recipe (what Daniel Pink calls Algorithmic Tasks). So what is Google doing that others aren’t? They are harnessing motivation through different kinds of reinforcers than we are used to seeing in the business place.

Here are the really positive things I think we can learn from Daniel Pink’s thoughts on Motivation with the help of some major refinements from Behavior Analysis:

  • Categorizing what we do on the job into two categories: “algorithmic” and “heuristic”.

“An Algorithmic Task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions, down a single pathway to one conclusion. A Heuristic Task is the opposite…you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution.”

This distinction can make it easier for us to decide on what kind of reinforcer is appropriate for a given situation. In the case of algorithmic tasks for Millennials, we know that we can pretty much skip on over the whole bonuses and mirch idea (assuming that the organization already pays them fairly and provides the appropriate “benefits”…blahhchh…I hate this word used for things like healthcare and maternity/paternity leave) into the realm of things like work from home (or abroad) time or gamification.

  • We should be looking at reinforcement in a new way for a changing world. One that “concerns itself less with the external rewards to which an activity leads and more with the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself” and organizations should work from this premise.

Pinks talks about certain “hygiene” factors that should occur in any job.  These include such things as: fair salary and benefits; appropriate, safe and happy working conditions. Before these are settled, the rest becomes very difficult to achieve.

Once “hygiene” factors are taken care of however, we should be looking at different kinds of reinforcers for our changing and evolving industries.

Pink cites two studies that make the point clear:

A survey of 684 open-source developers asked why they participated in these (time consuming and completely unpaid) projects by an MIT professor and Boston Consulting Group. They found that “how creative a person feels when working on the project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver” (Lakhani & Wolf, 2005)

 A different German motivation study on open source projects found the following drivers to be the catalyst for participation in such projects: “the fun…of mastering the challenge of a given software problem” and the “desire to give a gift to the programming community” (Blitzer et al, 2007)

Largely, individuals in the software industry- one in which there is a vast and continually growing number of Millennials-  see things like “completing a challenging task” as more reinforcing than “making big bucks” as evidenced by the studies above and the existence of organizations such as Linux, Apache, Free Software Foundation, Bitcoin, Wikipedia. If this weren’t the case no one would be engaged with these organizations.

Millennials are concerned with a few categories of reinforcers for Heuristic Tasks that Pink gets at quite nicely. He calls them: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

  1. Autonomy deals with self-direction as it relates to how they engage in a task, when they engage in it and who they do it with (again remember we are talking about Heuristic Tasks).
  2. Mastery deals with making progress in one’s work.
  3. Purpose deals with making a contribution and being a part of some enduring legacy.

Organizations of today need to tap into these as they program in reinforcers to get a Millennial on board and keep them around.

  • We may need to flip our perspective on the things that have worked for years in order to appropriately gauge what we need now.

Pink cites a “2009 study [by MIT] that compared two different ways to incentivize creativity in the sciences”. Scientists in the study were receiving one of two different kinds of grants:

  1. One from the National Institute of Health (NIH)- included, “short review cycles, pre-defined deliverables, and renewal policies unforgiving of failure”
  2. The other from The Howard Hughes Institute (HHMI)-  “tolerates early failure, rewards long term success, and gives its appointees great freedom to experiment”

Results of the study showed that “HHMI investigators produced high-impact papers at a much higher rate than their similarly accomplished MIH counterparts”

This kind of lateral thinking can be mind boggling for many scientists like me. But the truth is that sometimes the best solution in one environment, is the opposite of the best solution in another environment even if you are seeking a similar outcome. In this case it’s typically: high levels of productivity without sacrificing quality or employee well-being.

The NIH example is exactly the right recipe in environments where the majority of tasks are algorithmic. And there are scientific reasons for it too. For one, there is the fact that consequences (both reinforcers and punishers) lose their power the longer the lag between it and the behavior. Clear direction for another. This is one of the most powerful antecedents in a workplace to trigger the behavior an organization needs as evidenced time and time again in research.

“Creativity” is one of those things that is not technically a behavior but we need it. Organizations that are hiring Millennials are asking for it. We can call it a “class of behavior” consisting of things like, “attempting novel solutions when confronted with a request or problem” but as we move forward in industry it is less and less likely that we will be able to truly operationally define each and every discrete nuance of “creativity” we need in this evolved workplace. We will have to rely on words like creativity and do our best to use exemplars and explanations as needed but mostly we will need to trust that if we are employing an advertiser, they have an understanding of the common behaviors associated with what creativity means in the advertising industry.

Since we are talking about behaviors related to creativity and not widget-making, we might need to stand some of our tried and true tenants on their heads. The questions we need to be asking are:

How can we prompt this class of responses and how can we create the right kind of reinforcement to get the best solutions possible for this population, in this environment?

The answers might look much different than what we are used to.

Maybe The Howard Hughes institute was on to something. But let me reiterate. This is not about changing the foundations of behavior analysis. It’s about addressing a new problem with a toolset from the top shelf.

Pink, 2009

Click the image to enlarge

Now before you go off and use Drive as your new management bible, understand, there are some things that are seriously no bueno about Pink’s “take” on behavioral science.

  • He believes we need to “offer fresher, more accurate accounts of human behavior”

“[Behavioral Science] suggested that, in the end humans aren’t much different from livestock--- that the way to get us moving in the right direction is by dangling a crunchier carrot or wielding a sharper stick…..It worked well--- extremely well. Until it didn’t.”

His point is that many of the tried and true behavioral tenants are extinct and require replacement with a new model. I disagree. Behavior Analysis is still the science to use. The difference is that I am talking about thinking differently about reinforcers and he is choosing to abandon science for…something else. It isn’t about replacing what exists, it’s about extending it and being really clear about the differences that tangible and non-tangible reinforcers offer in different contexts. With millennials, we are confronted with a generation that has a different set of values. Whose behaviors are largely reinforced by things that we aren’t super used to providing.

  • Pink’s jumble of terms is hugely destructive to a science of behavior in organizations.

“It’s not that all rewards at all times are bad….while a few advocates would have you believe in the basic evil of extrinsic incentives, that’s just not empirically true.”

What we want to harness are appropriate consequences. Always. That never changes. Namely, those things that provide reinforcement for the behaviors we need for our business to thrive and for our people to want to engage in them. “Rewards” and “incentives” are one kind of tangible consequence that you COULD provide, given the right circumstance and the right kind of behavior (assuming they are provided contingent upon behavior). Ultimately however, as part of the definition of reinforcement, if it does not have the effect of increasing the probability of future behavior, it IS NOT a reinforcer.

What’s frustrating here is that Pink is assuming that a) all rewards and incentives are reinforcers and b) tangible reinforcers are the ONLY kind of reinforcer that behavior analysis uses. This is simply untrue. Just because non-tangible reinforcers are harder to use (in that by their very nature they cannot be “handed” to someone) does not mean that we don’t use them ferociously. I do. We do. Pink’s experience as a lawyer makes him really good at painting a picture that sounds one way but is, in fact, a flat out lie.

The other terms that he uses that are damaging are “intrinsic” (belonging to a thing by its very nature) and “extrinsic” (not essential or inherent; not a basic part or quality).

What he SHOULD be saying is “tangible” (capable of being touched; discernible by the touch; material or substantial) and “non- tangible” (unable to be touched or physically manipulated).

By using extrinsic and intrinsic, he walks that fine line between having something based in science and having something based on Pop Psych.

The major motivators he cites in this book are excellent, smart, important NON-TANGIBLE REINFORCERS. Let’s not pretend he’s invented fire here. He’s just upgraded the match.

  • The studies he cites, and then attempts to explain lack true behavioral knowledge.

For example, no behavior analyst in their right mind would go to a company, say “give them a trinket when they do what you want!” and leave. We are always looking to program in a way to remove tangibles from the proverbial table. There are cases in which they might be necessary at the onset but our ultimate goal is to create lasting behavior change that exists beyond the use of these kinds of reinforcers. Whether we are tying reinforcement to “what’s in it for you” statements or “here is how the company is successful as a result” statements, we are always working in ways to create more “natural” reinforcement. These are necessary components to reinforcement that all competent Behavior Analysts understand. Pink’s omission of these important components to typical behavior analytic practice shows that he either a) purposefully omitted them to make his case of a novel approach a more exciting one or b) neglected to do ALL of his research.

The last point I’ll make on Pink’s approach is his description of management as a man-made product. Technically, no one needs it to survive. So why can’t we evolve it? Shouldn’t we feel the NEED to evolve it as populations change, grow, and evolve in their own ways?

I feel a super nerd moment coming on….

"All this has happened before. All this will happen again."

                                                   -Battlestar Gallactica

Whew. Glad I got that out.

Organizations have done all of this before. They have looked out at their populations and said, “what do we need to do to make this better?” All that I am purposing is some…dare I say it…creative thinking, to create the reinforcement necessary.

Change and evolution must occur. It sucks, believe me I am such a creature of habit, I get it. But this is a new revolution (as if the industrial and bohemian ones had a Love Child) and therefore requires a new mindset.

Millennials are worth hiring and keeping around. We are excited about innovation, honing our crafts and doing good. Use those things to create a workplace that gets your business what it needs to be successful and keeps its people happy and engaged.



Important Citations from studies above. For more please see Pink's 2009 Book titled: DRIVE:

Lakhani, Karim R., and Robert Wolf. "Why Hackers Do What They Do: Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects." In Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, edited by Joe Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott Hissam, and Karim R. Lakhani. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Jurgen Blitzer, Wolfram Schrettl, and Philip J.H. Schroeder, “Intrinsic Motivation in Open Source Software Development,” Journal of Comparative Economics 35 (2007): 17, 4