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What Workers Want—The Big Picture

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This chapter presents what is essentially a positive view of the nature of people at work. That view is supported by the mountain of evidence the authors have gathered over many years of research, by the thinking and systematic research of others, and by the success of organizations whose policies and practices reflect such optimism.
This chapter is from the book
  • Human capital will go where it is wanted, and it will stay where it is well treated. It cannot be driven; it can only be attracted.”
  • —Walter Wriston, Former Chairman, Citicorp/Citibank

An accurate understanding of motivation in the workplace is more than an academic pursuit. The effectiveness of critical business policies depends on the extent to which our assumptions about human motivation are accurate. If they are not accurate, they either have no impact at all, or worse, they boomerang and damage the organization. Accuracy depends not only on wisdom and experience, but on systematic research. Research protects us from personal bias, seeing what we want to see instead of what is there. Research also protects us from the lure of fads and fashions.

The problem with many theories in this field is not that they have nothing to say, but rather that they:

  • Focus on just one aspiration as the central motivator (and, therefore, the central explanation) of employee morale and performance
  • Claim that most people are frustrated with the achievement of that aspiration (the “sky is falling” scenario) and that dealing with that single frustration will solve all problems
  • Typically assert that what the theorist has uncovered characterizes a “new generation” of workers and is therefore novel

It is helpful to review a few of the more prevalent motivational myths and fads—those involving generational differences and those about people’s attitudes toward work—before we review the results of systematic research.

Blame It on the Young

  • “Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”
  • —Socrates (470–399 B.C.)

For reasons that we will soon show are misguided, popular theories of what employees want change continually, and the change is often couched in terms of “new generations” of workers whose needs and expectations differ sharply from those of their predecessors. We are told that there are important differences between the “Baby Boomers” and “Generation X.” And, here come the “Millennials.” It is theorized that they all need to be dealt with differently because they are all different.

These seemingly significant differences make for interesting reading, and the business media have surely accommodated us. Numerous stories have been published on generational change and its implications for management practice. Generation X, for example, is widely assumed to put maximum emphasis on individual freedom and minimum emphasis on company loyalty. A number of years ago, the author of a Fortune article on “GenX” advised that, “If your competitor lets employees keep a birdbath in the office, you will have no choice but to follow suit.”1 A Time columnist summed up the generation as one that, “...would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder.”2

These observations are seductive; managing people is a difficult and complicated job filled with many headaches, and most managers want to learn all they can about human motivation. Furthermore, the answers provided by the theories on generational change seem intuitively correct. When a certain age in life is reached, people almost inevitably begin to talk about “that new generation” in a way that means, “What’s this world coming to?” The new generation is not only “not like us,” but they are “not like we were at that age.” This discussion has been going on forever. See the Socrates quote that opened this chapter.

The fact that young people are so often viewed with apprehension by their elders should make us think hard about the validity of assertions about genuine generational change. It may be just a matter of age, but even more important, it may be a confusion of what’s apparent, such as the clothes and music preferences of young people, with what is real, such as their basic goals as they enter the workforce.

An early and dramatic example of this tendency to confuse youthful tastes with human needs in the workplace occurred in the early 1970s. As the tumultuous ‘60s ended, a deluge of books, television specials, and newspaper articles spotlighted a new generation of workers. These young people were (supposedly) severely discontented with work. Even worse, it was popularly suggested that the traditional sources of worker grievances (unhappiness with pay, benefits, hours, and working conditions) were no longer the primary causes of worker dissatisfaction. We were told that the very nature of the work itself drove the “new” worker to near distraction. This worker was depicted as a product of the ‘60s, when rebellion against “over 30” adult materialistic values appeared widespread, and freedom and self-actualization were the goals. These workers, it was claimed, would not settle for their fathers’ routine and mind-numbing jobs.

The concern about workers and work at that time was perhaps best summarized in a 1973 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, titled Work in America. In describing the profoundly negative impact work seemed to have on so many young employees, the study’s editors reported the following:

  • The discontent of trapped, dehumanized workers is creating low productivity, increasing absenteeism, high worker turnover rates, wildcat strikes, industrial sabotage, poor-quality products, and a reluctance of workers to give themselves to their tasks.
  • Work-related problems are contributing to a decline in physical and mental health, decreased family stability and community cohesiveness, and less “balanced” political attitudes. Growing unhappiness with work is also producing increased drug abuse, alcohol addiction, aggression, and delinquency in the workplace and in the society at large.3

That statement was quite an indictment, and one that the media repeated endlessly. Of course, when a single factor (in this case, “dehumanizing” work content) is presumed to be responsible for so many business, social, and personal ills, rest assured that a single cure would soon follow. In the case of the HEW report, the cure (or, more accurately, the cure-all) was seen as the magic of “job enrichment.”

The Lordstown Strike and Job Enrichment “Solution”

Based on Frederick Herzberg’s “motivator-hygiene” theory, job enrichment was seen as an attempt to reinvigorate work with the prospect for real achievement, thus creating genuine satisfaction and motivation. In brief, the motivator-hygiene theory states that the work itself—the challenge of doing a job from start to finish, and so on—is the true motivator of workers, while the work environment—“hygiene” factors such as pay, benefits, and human relations—cannot positively motivate workers but, when adequate, temporarily prevents them from feeling unhappy. Therefore, the key to true motivation and lasting satisfaction is job enrichment: structuring work so it provides workers with a sense of achievement and accomplishment.4

The motivator-hygiene theory and the job-enrichment solution were extraordinarily popular in management thinking and teaching for much of the 1970s but have since largely faded from view. That is not surprising because, for one thing, cure-all solutions for cause-all problems are seldom real. Despite its academic trappings, the hullabaloo smacked of patent-medicine salesmanship. In fact, considering that so much of the expressed concern was about blue-collar workers on assembly lines, why had no labor unions placed demands for more meaningful work on their collective-bargaining agendas? Indeed, many labor leaders explicitly declined to join the rising chorus of voices concerned with job content.

The attention given to a 1972 workers’ strike in the Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant of General Motors reinforced the skepticism about job enrichment and its claims. This strike was initially and widely interpreted to be the result of the dehumanizing nature of assembly-line work. However, the reality of Lordstown differed almost entirely from the way the strike was generally portrayed in the media and academia. In the 1960s, GM built a new factory at Lordstown that was specially designed to assemble Vega passenger cars that GM hoped would prevent foreign manufacturers from eroding GM’s margins in the compact-car arena. By 1966, GM was hiring workers for the factory, eventually employing about 7,000 people. This new plant, with advanced robotics, represented a $100-million investment by the company.

GM recruited younger, better-educated workers who, it was claimed, were products of the ethos of the 1960s. Many of the employees even had long hair, so this was indeed a “new generation.” Then, GM adopted a variety of efficiency rules designed to increase the production of the new Vega plant from 60 cars every hour (or 1 every minute) to 100 cars in the same time (or one every 39 seconds). The company did not increase the workforce or decrease the number of procedures each worker was responsible for. It just required its workers to increase their pace. The workers fell behind, not being able to keep up with the line’s speed.

If the pace was maddening, the results were disastrous. Workers tried various self-help remedies, such as letting cars go by without the required procedure or part and “doubling up” (surreptitiously doing an additional procedure for a short period of time—usually very poorly—so that a friend could rest). Absenteeism increased, and harsher work rules were imposed that violated many traditional but unspoken shop-floor conventions.

The workers went on strike. The primary reason for the strike was the workers’ view that the company was engaged in a speed-up, which is hardly a novel issue in the history of labor-management conflict. It was not a sense that the work itself had become dehumanizing, but that the company’s demand for faster work was impossible to reasonably satisfy. As one writer put it, “The main principle of Lordstown technology is the speed-up as developed by Henry Ford.”5

The Generation Gap Mythology Re-Emerges

The interpretation of workforce problems as due to new generations of workers has re-emerged in a more sophisticated form over the past two decades and blossomed into a virtual industry. Many consultants now advise managers on how to deal with new generations to obtain the most productivity from them and to assure harmonious intergenerational work relationships. Four generations are usually identified: Workers born before 1945, often termed Traditionalists; Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964; Generation Xers, born 1965–1980; and the newest members of the workforce, the Millennials, born 1981–1995.

The generations are presumed to have different characteristics. While the descriptions vary among authors, here is a pretty common set:6

  • Traditionalists. Hardworking; loyal (to their country and employer); submissive (respect authority, don’t ruffle feathers); resistant to change; tech challenged.
  • Baby boomers. Work-centric (extremely hardworking, define themselves by their professional accomplishments); independent (confident, self-reliant); achievement-oriented; competitive (want to win).
  • Generation X. Individualistic (independent, resourceful, value freedom and responsibility, casual disdain for authority and structured work hours); technologically adept; flexible (adapt well to change, more willing to change employers, tolerant of alternative lifestyles); value work/life balance (“work to live rather than live to work”).
  • Millennials. Tech-savvy; family-centric (willing to trade high pay for fewer hours, flexible schedules, and a better work/life balance); achievement-oriented (ambitious, confident, high expectations of their employers, seek out new challenges); question authority; team-oriented (value teamwork, want to be involved, seek the input and affirmation of others, crave attention).

These descriptions and their variants have been widely accepted as accurate, as was the depiction in the 1970s of young workers as “alienated.” But, as was also the case in the ‘70s, there is not a shred of systematically collected evidence that any of these depictions of generations are true. They are based entirely on anecdotes and have their source, in part, in a fundamental error: the confusion of the effects of age and, especially, tenure with “generation.” After all, so-called Traditionalists were not only born and reared in an assumedly different era culturally—they also have had longer tenure in their companies and are older. Their resistance to change—if it even exists—may have nothing to do with their generation and everything to do with their tenure or age and their reluctance to trade what has worked for them for years for something untried. In other words, the Millennials, when they age and work longer for their companies, might be no different than the Traditionalists are today.

To our knowledge, there have been just two genuinely systematic studies specifically testing the theory of generational differences, one by the Conference Board of Canada,7 and the other by Jennifer Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership.8 Both studies were based on surveys, in the Conference Board case, of 900 Canadian employees, limited to three generations: Baby Boomers: born 1945–1965; X: born 1965–1979; and, Y: born 1980–2000. Deal, on the other hand, surveyed 3,200 U.S. workers and divides her population into five generations: Silents (born 1925–1945); Early Boomers (born 1946–1954); Late Boomers (born 1955–1963); Early Xers (born 1962–1976); and, Late Xers (born 1977–1986).9

Here, in brief, are the conclusions from these studies:

  • The authors of the Conference Board report conclude that, “There are some sharp differences in how the generations see one another, many of which mirror popular (and often negative) generational stereotypes. Yet, workers from across all three generations want many of the same things from their work, their colleagues, and their employers. In short, many of the supposed differences between the Boomer, Gen X, and Gen Y workers are based on perception, not reality.”10 Companies therefore need to “...provide what all workers want: respect, flexibility, and fairness.”11 Only two differences in preferences of any significance were found: Boomers somewhat more than the other two generations prefer face-to-face communications rather than technological means, such as emails (are any readers surprised?) and they are less interested in after-hours socializing with co-workers (considering the Boomers’ ages, there’s no surprise in that).

    The Conference Board study explodes a number of specific myths about generational differences. Among them is the belief that “Gen Xers do not like to work in teams, whereas Boomers and Gen Yers are more collaborative and team-oriented.” Their data: “In fact, 62 percent of Gen Xers said that they prefer to work alone, compared with 59 percent of Boomers and 64 percent of Gen Yers. As well, 57 percent of Gen Xers said that they like to work in teams, compared with 55 percent of Boomers and 61 percent of Gen Yers.”12 Another prevalent belief: “Boomers value work over life, Gen Xers value life over work, and Gen Yers only value life outside of work.” But the data show that “all three generations seek work-life balance. They all work for the enjoyment of working and to have the means to enjoy a personal life.” The report’s authors caution that “...employers need to be wary of programs and practices that warn of vast gulfs between the generations, and promise to elevate organizational performance through what might be termed ‘management by stereotype.’ It does not work that way. The keys to success in managing a multigenerational workforce are not to be found in designing workplace policies to fit particular generations of workers; they come from developing a human resource management system that makes all workers feel equally valued and is based on respect, shared values, flexibility, and fairness.”13

  • Jennifer Deal presents similar data and comes to strikingly similar conclusions: “...the generation gap at work is one more of appearance than substance.... People want about the same things at work, no matter what generation they are from.”14 Deal’s advice to management: “Remember, you don’t have to tie yourself into knots (or worse!) trying to accommodate each generation’s individual whims, and you don’t have to worry about learning a new set of whims when the next generation comes along. People from different generations are largely alike in what they think, believe, and want from their work life. Once people accept this fact, and make their actions consistent with the principles that apply to working with people of all generations, the (generation) gap will be retired.”15

Still, in the work setting, employees and managers resist these conclusions about the lack of differences between generations because the conclusions belie what they claim they actually see and experience every day. They see Boomers acting more conservatively, and more loyal to, and satisfied with, the company. They see Traditionalists being more positive than nearly everyone at work regarding the company as a whole. As The Conference Board emphasized, there are differences in the way the generations see each other. It is also true, however, that Boomers are older and more likely to have been at the company significantly longer than, say, Gen Xers and thus may be more invested than them in it. And, Traditionalists, the oldest cohort, are more likely to be in management, a population we know to be generally more positive. So, both tenure in the company and level confound what people are seeing with their own eyes—you can’t “see” tenure, but you can “see” age, which they equate with “generation.” A related data analysis that we performed shows the impact of the demographics on overall satisfaction. We found that when we statistically take out the effect of both tenure and level, the differences by age (that is, “generation”) disappear—with the exception of a very small positive effect for Traditionalists. Our analysis thus teaches us that with regard to overall satisfaction, it is tenure—not age/generation—that has the real impact. People tend to join companies enthusiastically, hopeful that they have found an organization where their work-related goals, interests, and aspirations will be met. In most companies, however, initial expectations are not met and attitudes then decline, reaching their lowest points during their third to sixth years of employment, and begin to recover later on, as shown in Table 1-1. These effects have held up year after year since we started collecting data in 1972, and they hold up for both management and non-management. Here is the analysis between tenure and satisfaction, performed on our recent survey results.

Table 1-1. Overall Satisfaction by Job Tenure: 2011-2012 Data (% Favorable)

< 6 mos.

6 mos. – 1 yr.

1 yr. – 3 yr.

3 yr. – 6 yr.

6 yr. – 11 yr.

11 yr. – 16 yr.

> 16 yrs.

















Further analysis shows that this effect of tenure occurs at all ages! Age itself, other than a slight positive bump for Traditionalists (those over 68 years of age), has no effect. When, say, a middle-age person joins a company, he shows over time the same tenure versus satisfaction results as do younger people. (For these analyses, see our website at www.sirota.com/enthusiastic-employee.)

The recovery in attitudes later in one’s work career is likely a function of employee attrition (many unhappy employees have left), dissonance (“If I am still here, I must be satisfied!”), and habituation (“After all this time, the place has grown on me.”) Other than being on guard against the generational differences stereotypes, the only practical conclusion for managers about the research on the topic is this: if you are searching for a way to add a few points to your workforce satisfaction scores, you might consider hiring only those 68 years of age or older (the Traditionalists)—and employing them for no more than one year!

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