All Articles Leadership Inspiration Time for a new approach to motivating millennials

Time for a new approach to motivating millennials

What can we learn from research that suggests some values cycle through generations? How does that help us at work?

6 min read



Susan Fowler

A business magazine in Korea interviewed me for an article on the science of motivation. I didn’t realize the article was focused on millennials until I saw the headline — the only part written in English.

No matter where I work in the world, the question of motivating millennials seems to pop up. Understandable, since this group of people ages 16 to 37 constitutes the largest segment of the world’s current and future labor force (35% in the U.S.). I can’t read the article in Korean, so I thought I’d capture the essence of what I really think about motivating millennials.

What are generational values?

You might have first encountered the idea of values differences as I did, through Morris Massey’s fabulously popular lectureWhat You Are Is Where You Were When.” Massey was a professor at the University of Colorado and a wonderful mentor for me in the early 1970s. His lecture (and subsequent video) changed the way I thought about values (and the course of my education and career).

In 1991, researchers William Strauss and Neil Howe published their fascinating study in “Generations: The History of America’s Future from 1584 to 2069.” They tracked US values through generations using documents, media reports and historical records. They described how each 20 years or so ushers a new set of values — a generational values personality.

They created the terms we are now so familiar with, from baby boomers to millennials. They also found that types of values repeat themselves in predictable patterns. A generation lasts approximately 20 years, and types of values begin repeating after the fourth generation, or every 80 years. So, millennials born between 1981-2002, roughly speaking, have similar types of values as people born between 1901 and 1924. The two generations have similar peer-value profiles.

The research on generational values is still young and, admittedly, interesting. Seeing values echoed sequentially in a fixed pattern over the ages might demonstrate how we can learn from history, provide insight into the future by studying how values repeat in cycles and help us better understand ourselves and others.

However, generational values only describe the formation of a huge population’s programmed values — values that are unexplored and generated by what a particular age group experienced growing up. Parents, take note: The greatest influence on your children’s programmed values are their peers and what’s happening in their world.

Unfortunately, the most important aspects of understanding values are often lost in the hype and oversimplification of generational values. Generational values are helpful to understand the formation of your programmed values, but not the true nature of values. Generational values may be like a bright, shiny object distracting us from what we really need to understand about values — and the role they play in people’s motivation

Why is it important to distinguish between generational and developed values?

In the 1990s, Drea Zigarmi and Michael O’Connor developed a values assessment and model, inspired by Massey and integrating the work of Strauss and Howe. Since then, Zigarmi and I have further developed the Values Point of View model to provide a common language and framework for understanding values. The Values Point of View model reinforces three key notions:

  1. Programmed values aren’t nearly as powerful as developed values. A developed value is thoughtfully chosen from alternatives, with an understanding of the consequences of the alternatives, and acted on over time, prized and publicly owned.
  2. Values are individually held and issue-based. A value is a choice you make regarding a specific issue. You can hold one type of value when it comes to women’s rights and another when it comes to gun control. The problem is that many people fail to explore their values and underlying beliefs, depending instead on unexplored programmed values that are general and generational.
  3. Values are at the heart of motivation. Programmed values are more likely to lead to suboptimal motivation; developed values are more likely to result in optimal motivation. When we take action that is aligned with our developed values, we experience vitality, sustainable positive energy and greater sense of well-being.

Whether a boomer, Gen X’er, millennial, or Gen Z’er, if you don’t understand the ends and means of the values you hold, you are most likely operating on programmed values without realizing it. Emphasizing generational values is not only personally limiting, but it also creates organizational problems.

A different approach to “motivating millennials”

Because millennials make up such a large portion of our workforce, organizations are bending over backward to motivate them — namely, by giving millennials what organizations think they want. But, these “wants” are based on unexplored programmed values. No wonder it’s hard to create value-based communities aligned in moving forward together.

Instead of trying to “motivate” millennials based on their programmed values, try a different approach: Help individuals develop conscious and meaningful values. Teach individuals that values are choices and issue-based.

Consider Mahatma Gandhi. As a child, Gandhi and his peers experienced British subjugation. Raised as a vegetarian, Gandhi eventually gave into peer pressure and societal norms while studying law in London and began eating meat.

Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and began his famous nonviolent revolution. As he “fought” for Indian independence, he chose to become a vegetarian, which reflected not only his culture’s values but also what he’d learned about animal rights while studying in London.

Gandhi’s story is a perfect example of moving from a programmed value (eating vegetarian) to exploring his beliefs and values (eating meat) and choosing a developed value (evolving from animal rights to human rights).

The values story is rich and complex. I encourage you to eschew claims of quick and easy ways to motivate millennials. Instead, I encourage you to do the essential work of appreciating every generation’s programmed values, but focus on teaching individuals how to move beyond their generation’s programmed values. We can only work together in a values-based community when individuals — regardless of their generation — develop values based on fully explored beliefs that serve the people they work with those they are in business to serve.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership” and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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