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Motivating a 21st Century Lab Staff, Part II

In coming up with ways to motivate their staff, managers should take into account the different age cohorts that exist among employees. These groups all value different things and have various expectations when it comes to work. This article outlines ways of approaching each of these cohorts.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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Lab Managers Need to Adjust Their Management Style to Take Generational Differences Into Account

In part one of this article (November, 2009), I discussed the role of the organizational climate in motivating lab scientists and the importance of understanding individual characteristics. In part two we will consider the difference in age cohorts. A cohort is a group of people who share a common characteristic or experience within a defined period (e.g., are born, leave school, lose their job, are exposed to a drug or a vaccine, etc.).

Age cohorts: New findings in cross-generational motivation

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Over the past several years a number of distinct differences have been found among various age groups. These are more pronounced than the obvious differences such as those under 40 will probably have childcare issues and those over 55 will be looking at retirement options and parent care. It has to do with the way the world in which we were raised shaped our group personalities. Those of us with parents who were young adults during the Great Depression know that their attitude about money and investing is very different from ours. Kids who grew up with their hands on a keyboard or a gaming device and think that USA Today is a journalistic icon are different from people who are terrified to plug in their computers and don’t trust anything less authoritative than The New York Times (although now, none of the media giants retains its patina of journalistic excellence and impartiality).

These group characteristics lead to some helpful generalizations about motivation. An article in the July-August 2009 Harvard Business Review updates and expands some of the generational cohort models. The substance is that baby boomers (those born 1946 through 1964) and Generation Ys (those born 1979 through 1994) have a lot in common. Since many of you are from the baby boom age cohort, this is may be good news. Here are some of the common characteristics:

They want to contribute to society through their labor, seek flexible working arrangements, value social connections and loyalty to a company, and prize other rewards of employment over monetary compensation.

More from the portrait of baby boomers

They expect to work beyond age 65, and 14 percent say that they don’t think they will ever retire. They report needing to stay in the work force three to four years longer than they did six months ago. More than half of boomers volunteer time to advance environmental, cultural, or other causes. They prize flexibility and autonomy in their jobs. They have needy family members from two generations: elderly parents and dependent children.

More from the portrait of Generation Y

They are very ambitious, but they want both to remain faithful to the workplace and have a wide range of new experiences. They are comfortable in a multicultural environment. They are committed to healing the planet, and they believe that it is important to work in a green, environmental workplace. They also want to network and expect others, including bosses, to be accessible.

The “odd” generation

An interesting side note to this research is that the “different” group is Generation X, those between the ages of about 35 and 50!

Generation X is comprised of the 44 to 50 million Americans born between 1965 and 1980. They are the product of a severe decline in the birth rate that followed the baby boom, and make up a much smaller group than both the previous and following generations.

This relatively small cohort makes up an important middle segment in most laboratories. So managers need to adjust their management style to take their generational differences into account, and not see them as weird or strange or unmotivated. For example, Gen Xers rate high compensation as very important. Here are a few common characteristics of Generation X.

They tend to be individualistic, independent, resourceful, and self-sufficient. In the workplace, Generation Xers value freedom and responsibility. You may have noticed that many in this generation display a “casual disdain for authority and structured work hours.” They dislike being micromanaged and strongly prefer a hands-off management philosophy.

The Generation X mentality reflects a shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. They are the first generation to grow up surrounded by computers, and technology has been an integral part of their lives. As a result, they are quite comfortable in the high-tech environment of laboratories and are anxious to adopt new technology and make modifications to the equipment in use.

Since many Gen Xers lived through tough economic times in the 1980s and saw their baby boomer parents lose long-held positions, they are less committed to one employer and more willing to change jobs to get ahead than previous generations. They adapt well to change and are tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Generation Xers are ambitious and eager to learn new skills but want to accomplish things on their own terms. As the economy improves, they may be more likely to look outside the organization for new positions than either baby boomers or Gen Yers.

Unlike previous generations, members of Generation X work to live rather than live to work. As a group, they appreciate fun in the workplace and prefer a work hard/play hard environment.

Key points for lab managers: Stress the social contribution of your work, be accessible to your staff, focus on outcomes over processes, encourage curiosity, and emphasize “green.”

As a manager, it makes sense to understand the age cohorts that comprise your work group. Consider the cohorts’ characteristics when developing new policies, rewards, and recognition.

For further reading:

1. Chandler, S. 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself: Change Your Life Forever, Career Press, 2004, ISBN: 1-56414-775-4.

2. Hewlett, S. A., Sherbin, L and Sumberg, K. “How Gen Y and Boomers Will Reshape Your Agenda,” Harvard Business Review, Jul-Aug 2009.

3. Heller, R. and Hindle, T., Essential Managers: Motivating People, DK Pub Merchandise, April 1999, ISBN: 0789428962.

4. Patterson, M., Warr, P. and West, M. “Organizational Climate and Company Productivity: The Role of Employee Affect and Employee Level,” CEPDP 626, April 2004; Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.

5. Morris, E., Leaders’ Influence on Work Climate Impacts Business Performance, Senior Associate http://www.dynamicresults. net/read_09_leaders-influence-on-workclimate- impacts-business-performance.php