Addressing the “praise deficit”: young workers putting a strain on organizations and organizations are responding inappropriately

One of the things Black Dog specializes in is how generational dynamics affect organizational behavior and effectiveness. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, companies across the US are flying headlong toward a massive macro-succession pile-up, and the collective personality of the Millennial Generation (born from ~1980-2000) is going to play a major part in mid-management breakdowns in the next few years.

If you’d like a glimpse of the stress the Millennials are already exerting on organizations, you’ll want to read a new analysis from the Wall Street Journal‘s CareerJournal.com site. In it, Jeffrey Zaslow chronicles how businesses are addressing the Mills’ excessive need for praise:

Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up. Corporations including Lands’ End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using email, prize packages and public displays of appreciation. The 1,000-employee Scooter Store Inc., a power-wheelchair and scooter firm in New Braunfels, Texas, has a staff “celebrations assistant” whose job it is to throw confetti — 25 pounds a week — at employees. She also passes out 100 to 500 celebratory helium balloons a week. The Container Store Inc. estimates that one of its 4,000 employees receives praise every 20 seconds, through such efforts as its “Celebration Voice Mailboxes.”

I could go on forever about the causes for this cohort’s rampant need for attaboys (and I do just that when teaching my clients about working with and marketing to them), but ultimately it boils down to the fact that they were raised in an era where self-esteem was unhitched from accomplishment. It was assumed that if you instilled a kid with a strong self-image, then he or she would be able to ride that confidence to success.

There’s no question that companies like Land’s End and BoA need to teach their managers to more effectively handle younger workers. But what I’m reading here leads me to conclude that these organizations are making a couple significant mistakes, and in the process are assuring that the problems they face will worsen over time.

The first issue is that throwing confetti and handing out gold stars just for showing up is, at best, slapping a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. The theory was that self-esteem assured accomplishment, but we now have ample reason to doubt that conclusion. Millennials demand recognition, but that recognition doesn’t improve performance – it merely reinforces their right to demand recognition. Want some evidence? Review the CareerJournal article in detail – you’re being told about the successes of handing out the attaboys, but where are you told about how those attaboys are driving improved performance?

You’d think that’s the sort of thing a Wall Street Journal article would mention if it were a reality, wouldn’t you?

At the risk of using an inflammatory analogy, you don’t treat a crack addiction by giving the patient more crack, and that’s what blank praise programs are if they’re executed in a vacuum.

Which brings me to the second issue – what are these companies doing to assess and address the actual skills deficits that we know the Millennial cohort suffers from? It’s a generation with a number of tremendous strengths, but it lacks in a couple areas that are key to business success (and essential to the cultivation of the next generation of management). Most notably, they’re not critical thinkers and they lack problem-solving skills. They’re very good at working in teams to achieve clearly defined, short-term goals, but when faced with challenges they haven’t been explicitly trained how to manage, they can “go limp.” Additionally, their highly-touted technical savvy is significantly overrated.

What should be emerging is a picture of companies that are reinforcing unwanted behaviors (my clients lament how much of their formerly productive time is now devoted to massaging egos and managing emotional drama) while taking no steps toward developing the kinds of skills and capabilities that are going to be essential to their ability to compete in the next decade.

Instead of handing Boomer and Xer managers confetti quotas, American businesses need to be arming them with hard training in understanding the Millennial personality so that the demands of cultivating critical performance and management capabilities can be productively hitched to the process of creating a workplace that motivates and rewards all employees.

Millennials need to hear praise, but underneath it all they know when the praise is empty. However, nothing jacks them up quite like being praised for an actual accomplishment. This is where companies need to be heading, and they’re not.

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13 responses to “Addressing the “praise deficit”: young workers putting a strain on organizations and organizations are responding inappropriately

  1. I’m technically an Xer, but am young enough in that group to have some of the traits given to Millenials. As such, I understand the need for praise. I may know that my work is great, but if I don’t occasionally hear that it is, I get depressed and start questioning my own confidence in my abilities, and as a result the quality of my work suffers.

    But there are also times when I actually get offended by empty praise. It’s very much like Dash says in The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, no-one is.” And since I’m exceptionally skilled in some areas, being praised for something that every electrical engineer has to be skilled in to do their job just makes me feel like an also-ran.

    There’s another aspect of praise for just showing up that you haven’t talked about, at least not directly – how praise can actually REDUCE performance instead of improve it. For example, if an engineer get praised for something so basic as to be a fundamental aspect of his or her job, it makes them think that they can get away with doing lower quality work and still get praise (in the form of perks, raises, promotions, etc.) And so that engineer could potentially backslide from their actual potential to the level expected by the praise given.

    Praise in some form is important, but if it’s not meaningful praise, then I think you’re doing yourself more harm than good.

  2. Right – and as I indicate in the post, these kids DO know the difference. But they’ve been praised their whole lives and now feel entitled to it. When you add to this the fact that they aren’t good critical thinkers, and they know this, too, you get into a nasty spiral. They insist on praise because they feel like insisting is all they have.

    If we don’t get serious about driving real skills here so that esteem can be linked to accomplishment, we’re in deep trouble.

  3. The flip side of this is the inability to deal with criticism. Although this has probably always been an issue (I’ve seen it with hippy-culture flower child survivors, too), the continual need for praise can only exacerbate the problem. I’ve actually been worried about this in aspects of life beyond the workplace. For instance, the idea of “being fat is ok,” has helped lead to an “epidemic of obesity.” Soccer games where winning plays no role drives me insane. There has to be some sort of balance. I just hope we’re at an apex of this particular pendulum swing.

    I do see some reason for hope, though. Once Millennials understand what you’re trying to do with constructive criticism, and you cut out the BS praise, they actually learn to crave REAL praise. In a way, I suppose these kids are looking for a parent-figure they can respect rather than the “friend” they grew up with.

  4. The criticism thing is a real problem, as I learned (the hard way) while teaching a couple years ago. In so many cases there are two options – blank praise or why do you hate me (I’m calling my parents)? Nobody likes being criticized, me included, but an organization where that tool is no longer allowed in the box is going to have severe problems.

    I’m certainly not lobbying for a return to the “good old days” – I didn’t like being yelled at and my own management style eschews it completely. If I’m yelling it’s because somebody has been actively and aggressively provoking me, and that’s almost never going to be an issue with this cohort, I don’t think. But you have to be able to say “this is wrong.”

    If you can’t, you’re making life a lot easier on your competitors.

  5. Two other factors you have previously mentioned come to mind as I read this: 1) the demographic size of the Millenial generation itself, and why this is factor is because if they don’t want to put up with you, they don’t have to, they’ll just try to find someone a little younger who’s less stern. And that person will probably appear for them somewhere, at least demographically.

    Secondly, I’m not sure if you alluded to this directly, but I know the critic Dana Gioia has written extensively that the internet allows people to avoid each other in ways they never could before. If they don’t like what you’re saying, they can just go download something that makes them happier. Would it be a worse world without this freedom? Perhaps..but technology has changed the situation and no one has adequately responded on a theoretical level.

    Also, and I’m sure you have thought of this also, so I’ll be brief – is perhaps consider the possibility that you’re a tad intimidating? You are tall, strong, and know everything – three qualities that guarantee intimidation. I know ‘everything’ too, and people are intimidated merely by what I know, even though I’m 160 lbs and do not possess skull-cracking capabilities.

  6. @Sam. I rarely jump up and down screaming, but when I do, it’s usually not because someone is actively provoking me. I can usually tune that out. Instead, it’s more about passive provocation. I hate it when people are excessively lazy. 🙂

    I haven’t worked with enough millennials to know if this is a ubiquitous characteristic or not, but I’ve noticed very different set of priorities in some of them. For instance, when I am presenting my data in a public forum, I usually go over the slides or poster or manuscript or whatever a bazillion times to make sure I’m not doing/saying anything overwhelmingly stupid. At the very least, I try to make the data relatively easy to follow (correct figure numbers, correct statistics, etc). I’ve noticed that this hasn’t always been the case with millennials. Instead, it’s all about getting something thrown together that meets some sort of personal minimal standard that has more to do with quantity than quality. I haven’t decided if this is a generation thing or a student learning curve thing. Or maybe my expectations in general are just too high, who knows.

  7. It’s interesting to me to read this analysis that comes from a primarily Gen X perspective… because it’s almost a response that I’d expect to hear from Gen X. Naturally, Gen X’ers feel inconvenienced by this “need” that they perceive for Mill’s to expect praise. Where I come from, the Gen X’ers are so obsessed with gaining real credit of that they typically give none at all to anyone but themselves… unless, of course, they’re handing out meaningless platitudes of praise devoid of any substance. Being a Mill, I see this as a waste of time and further reason to have little faith in a Gen X’s ability to lead. Most Gen X’ers I work with claim to be tech savvy, and I really think they have fooled no one but themselves. Countless times, I’ve seen a Gen X manager (not so much with Boomers; they typically welcome help) revert back to a defensive posture and BELIEVE that their way is right, even when they are so obviously failing. Mills are more tech savvy, and if one isn’t, I’d bet they have a couple friends that are only a phone call away. I think this scares the hell out of Gen X’ers, especially the ones who find that believing they are correct (and hold positions where they need to be), but know deep down that they are far from it.

    Mind you all, I do not mean to bash any of the generations. I think that there is a tremendous amount of learning that can be exchanged between all generations… I just think that each generation has a hard time accepting and embracing that concept. Each generation is guilty of the “no one understands us” belief.

    Again, I refer back to the Millennials that have the ability to recognize their peers’ weaknesses (those that crave the meaningless attention and that really are not that tech savvy). Those Mills that expect praise for real accomplishment and get it will pull far ahead of those that take the “attaboys.” Unfortunately, this group will have to also take on the Gen X’ers that deem them as a threat to their power, which they believe they have works oh-so-hard for.

  8. Lou,
    The “intimidating” thing might be a more compelling argument – and yeah, I’m more than aware of it in my case – if it weren’t for the fact that what I’m describing is so universally acknowledged by those who teach and manage Mills. Talk to all the profs you can round up and see what the percentage of agreement is – I’ve actually been stunned by how many people do seem to see it my way. I’m not used to being agreed with… 🙂

  9. Wait. Gen X’ers have power? I musta missed that particular memo. 🙂

    Actually, from my perspective, Gen X’ers seem to be stuck in the middle, with Boomers running the show in upper management (or, in my case, funding agencies) while we’re already training our replacements. I was actually talking with Sam about this a few days ago. If I recall correctly, Sam’s argument was something along the line that Gen X’ers will move in when Boomers start dying off because Millennials won’t have the necessary skills. My concern is that Millennials will actually be the ones moving in regardless of their skillset and Gen X’ers will likely miss the boat entirely.

    Oh, and I don’t use my cell phone to call people. I use it for e-mail (which, I guess, might as well be texting when it comes down to it). When face-time isn’t feasible, I’m usually an IM and e-mail kinda guy. Heh.

  10. Hi Jeff – it’s good to hear from you, and your perspective is an important one.

    I probably seem like I’m beating up on Millennials, which is unfortunate for a number of reasons. First off, even if they’re 100% guilty of everything I’m talking about and then some, they’re no more than the product of the errors of their parents’ generation. Are they incapable of critical thinking? If so, whose fault is that?

    Second, I come not to blame but to help. Yeah, we all like being right, but here the only real satisfaction would come from being a part of a solution that helped transform the generation into something great – working to remedy weaknesses and leverage strengths so that the only thing we can talk about is how they’re driving society to greater heights.

    Third, whatever criticism may be leveled at the Mills, it ain’t like my generation is perfect. We have some SERIOUS collective issues, and I can probably go on about those even longer than I can my perceptions about Boomers and Mills simply because I know us so well. And the programmatic solutions that I’d recommend to a client devote tremendous energy to fixing those problems, because if we don’t then the next 20 years are going to dominated by leadership stories that come from our worst qualities, not our best.

    This is a BIG issue, and every cohort has things to contribute and things that it needs to avoid contributing. The issue is that very few organizations realize it. I was talking to a guy in the career management field recently and he told me that his clients who are currently entrepreneurs get the coming macro-succession crisis completely, but that he hasn’t seen or heard ANYTHING to suggest that companies have noticed.

    You’re going to be in great shape, though – as my gen gets sucked into upper management roles companies are going to be looking for Millennials who have your kind of skill set to begin fast-tracking. Let me know if you need a recommendation… 🙂

  11. @Lou, I think Issac Asimov wrote a story about that. Where relationships were all virtual and human contact was actually considered repulsive. Its part of the Robot series.

  12. Mr. Pecaut,
    thanks for the recommendation. On the subject of the generational differences, being ‘alternative’ seems like a bunch of silly morality to Millenials, but they didn’t have to deal with the coma of Reaganism and we did.

    Our most pivotal political memory is the fall of the Berlin Wall, but theirs is Kurt Cobain’s suicide. So the goal becomes to avoid any kind of extreme criticism or emotionalism. Which from my analysis is not really a political event at all, which gives them a contorted view of what political activism means, and since the country is divided about how to respond to 9/11, this further encourages their separation from emotional commitment.

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