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Motivating Your New Professionals

Last week I had a fantastic coaching session. This individual wanted to know how they could motivate the new professionals on their team. I was so jazzed, I wanted to break down some key points of that discussion here. So, if you’re a supervisor who’s struggling to figure out what’s up with this new generation OR if you’re a new professional who’s struggling to connect with your supervisor, keep reading.

Okay, so I’m a Gen Xer. And last week I was having a coaching call with a fellow Gen Xer. At the start of the call, I asked them what they wanted to focus on. They said they weren’t quite sure what to do with the young professionals in their office. Their biggest concern was how to motivate them. Now exactly why did they need motivation? Their supervisor wanted them to embrace the idea that this was a career, not just a job. They also sheepishly mentioned that these new folks seemed a bit lazy and weren’t quite sure what to do to fix the problem.

Now I totally get this. I’ve definitely had my share of employees who just seemed to be showing up and doing the bare minimum. And when I compared them to my go-getters and over-achievers, it seemed like they could and should be doing more. This supervisor legitimately wanted to know how they could get them revved up. Alternatively, they wondered if they should worry about it at all. And they weren’t asking in a defeatist way. They really wanted to know if this was worth their time or if they needed to change their perspective.

In order to answer this question, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture. #Context. So many stories in society and Higher Ed tell us we need to work hard and sacrifice to be a successful, contributing members of society. And that message starts young. Remember those attendance awards in school? It was deemed a virtue to come to school no matter how you were feeling. It’s often seen of a badge of honor to have unused sick or vacation days. Sure, you get them, BUT is there time to take them? I’ve heard plenty of stories where folks felt pressured not to use them or prevented from taking them if the timing didn’t work out for their employer. I mean I wasn’t great at this myself. The last few years on campus, HR would let me know around May how many vacation days I had that wouldn’t roll over to the new fiscal year. I’d end up taking large portions of June off just to avoid losing them. But if they hadn’t prompted me, I probably would have just kept working. For so many of us, including myself, our identities are tied up in our work.

I’ve previously mentioned the book, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee. What I love about the book is she dives into this issue both historically and based on current research, which of course ticks lots of boxes for my Input and Context. I want to focus on the history of work today. Now, I’ve read this book three times, but it’s been a while so I’m summing these points up the best I can.…

  • So you know how sometimes when you’re exhausted you stop to make yourself feel better because in olden times people had to work way harder and in much worse conditions? Well, that’s not actually true. You spend more time at work than most of your ancestors. I specifically remember her talking about medieval peasants. Surely, they were toiling all day and all year out in the fields, right? But that’s not true. The Church knew that if they tried that BLEEP, they’d have a revolt on their hands. So, they made sure peasants had a ton of religious holidays and festivals to keep them happy. That’s right, medieval peasants worked fewer hours and had more vacation than you did.

  • Beyond that, most folks worked on their own terms prior to the Industrial Revolution. If they were a craftsman, they chose their rate and decided how many whatevers they wanted to make in a day or week. They focused on getting enough money to support their life, not to work for work’s sake. What they did as a means of work was a small part of their identity.

  • I feel compelled to mention the Puritan’s here. You remember the religious sect who came to America from England who were anti pretty much everything? Well, they were super into working hard to prove they were going to heaven. And since they believed who was going to heaven had already been decided, working hard didn’t get you to heaven it just showed everyone else that you were definitely going. I’m simplifying this a bit, but basically the message is work hard because that proves you’re godly. Suddenly your spiritual worthiness and morality became wrapped up in how hard you work. And because they had such a huge impact on culture in the United States, that message been absorbed as a belief that laziness is immoral. People became judged on how hard they worked.

  • And this “work ethic” coincided nicely with the Industrial Revolution when the economy really changed. Instead of people deciding when and how much to work, they started being paid per hour. And the expectations of how many hours one should work increased because that was better for business.

  • Eventually there was pushback with the Labor Movement in the late 1800 and early 1900’s because there were so many abuses by employers. Employees pushed back, formed unions, and got legislation passed that set child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, safely requirements, and the like. Unions began to flourish to protect workers from employers who often wanted people to do more with less for their benefit. Wink-wink.

  • Well during WWII, there was naturally a patriotic push to work harder to make sure the bad guys lost. People were asked to sacrifice for the sake of their country. That meant working long hours to make planes, bombs, and anything that might help preserve our and the world’s freedom. Now Allied soldiers absolutely needed those things, but if you know anything about government contracts, you know that the companies making these objects were being paid handsomely to do so. Those profits however, didn’t trickle down to the folks sacrificing to make them.

  • After WWII, folks realized, “Hey, you know what would really benefit us business owners? If people kept working their BLEEPS off, but instead of defeating bad guys we’ll say it’s to build the economy.” Now hard work to create a strong economy equaled patriotism.

  • Then in the 80’s, business owners were bummed that they weren’t making more money. The solution? People needed to buy more stuff! So we added the idea that BUYING lots of stuff “stimulated the economy” which was also hella-patriotic. And of course, you need more money to buy more stuff, so you better work even harder.

Now that’s just a brief overview of a few historical points that help us understand where we are today. And hopefully you can see from that timeline how…

A. Historically, folks didn’t need to work hard to feel like their lives had meaning. In fact, throughout most of history, people just worked to live, not the other way around. This lifestyle is NOT a natural component of the human experience. For most of history, people weren’t judged as being lazy for not working their BLEEPS off. Leisure and celebration were important parts of life.

B. Patriotism and other seemingly noble ideals are frequently used to convince us to sacrifice and boost our productivity. A better economy is theoretically better for the United States. I mean what are we doing in Higher Ed? We’re preparing folks to work the jobs that make our economy strong, right? We know how positively a college degree can impact future income. Unfortunately, far too often, this productivity benefits the institutions and companies we work for, but not the people doing the work.

C. So many of the hard-fought gains of the Labor Movement have been willingly sacrificed for the sake of these beliefs and culture. There was a reason they capped the work week at 40 hours per week and required over-time pay for extra work. But think about that moment you moved from an hourly to a salaried position. Didn’t you feel like that was an honor – like you were moving up in the world? You’ve finally made it! You don’t have to clock in to prove you’re valuable. Now, you get to work extra hours for FREE! Woohoo!

My point is that there are powerful forces manipulating you for the benefit of others. At the end of the day, it often means you work hard and are willing to sacrifice your energy, time, wellbeing, and life in the name of religion, country, company, or customer – aka “for the students.” But why can’t you do a reasonable amount of work in exchange for a salary that’s reflective of your experience and keeps up with inflation? If it would benefit the institution for your department to do more, why wouldn’t you get compensated more or be able to hire someone to do that extra work? The answer is, they don’t need to because we’ve all been trained that hard-work and sacrifice make us team players and patriots.

Now what the BLEEP does this have to do with motivating new professionals? Lol. Well, most of our new professionals are Gen Zers. As with each new generation, you have certain assumptions about them compared to how you were raised/what you believe about the world. If you’re a supervisor, there’s a good chance you’re Gen X, a Millennial, or maybe even a Baby Boomer. Based on everything I just went over, that means there’s an excellent chance you think having a good work-ethic means working long hours and sacrificing for the benefit of others. I’ve talked to many, many supervisors who are mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. I’ve worked with folks who have chronic illnesses that were brought on by this super, awesome work-ethic.

Casually this looks like…

  • You seem tired. Why don’t you take tomorrow off? “Oh, I can’t, I have a meeting.”

  • Are you going on vacation this summer? “There’s no way. I have too much work to do.”

  • An early morning text that explains, “Hey. I’m going to be late. I was up sick all night, but I’ll be there in time for my first meeting.”

But this new generation; these Gen Zers have seen the toll this “work-ethic” has had on our health and wellbeing. In a BBC article in June of 2022, Ali Francis says,

For decades, the cultural mandate in many Western countries has been hustle hard for your employer, and you’ll be rewarded. If the striving is for a job you love, the pay will be satisfaction. And if the job involves climbing the rungs of a corporate ladder, the pay will be, well, big bucks. Though different in motivation, both paths share the same narrative. As a result, work has become an obsession, an identity even; something workers traditionally felt lucky to have.

But increasingly, Generation Z workers like Holleman – those born between 1997 and 2012 – are insisting we write a new script for work. Having observed older workers experience burnout, time poverty and economic insecurity at the grindstone, they’re demanding more from workplaces: bigger pay cheques, more time off, the flexibility to work remotely and greater social and environmental responsibility. Many of these values were millennial preferences, but for Gen Zers, they’ve become expectations – and they’re willing to walk away from employers if their needs aren’t met.

They’ve SEEN that all our hard work ISN’T paying off…at least not for us. You staying late, doing the work of two people, or sacrificing your wellbeing isn’t the win-win you were promised. So, Gen Z’er’s aren’t having it. In our conversation, this supervisor was shocked that shortly before a new professional needed to go teach a class, they announced they weren’t feeling well and were going home. And most of us would be shocked by this. It’s second nature for us to power through, so you’re going to think, “Um, can’t you rally for an hour or so and then go?” We’ve been trained that our “responsibilities” are more important than our wellbeing. But are they? What’s really going to happen if class is cancelled one day? Oh, that’s right, the students will be pumped that they get a break. You might have to adjust the rest of the semester, but the only reason that might be overwhelming is because we feel like things have to be the way they were planned.

When you have an instinctual response like this, it’s easy to assume it’s because we’re right and the other party is wrong. As a supervisor, that can easily translate into, “Yikes. These new professionals seem lazy. How can I motivate them to do more?” In other words, it’s your job to fix these new professionals, so they assimilate into the status quo. But it would behoove all of us to step back and reassess our own stories and this culture when we feel challenged. Maybe they’re not lazy. Maybe they don’t feel like their identity is tied to their work.

We have these colloquialisms in Higher Ed like this is a career not a job, being a team player, or motivating your team. Those all seem like noble ideas, but they’re really just code for getting people to work harder without additional compensation. You know I’m not a huge fan of annual reviews for a variety of reasons. But if we look at those reviews with the best of intentions, it’s about making sure folks are doing their jobs well. And how does one know whether a person is doing their job well? Why by measuring one’s performance to the expectations that have been set, right? But the evaluation doesn’t just have two options, does it? It’s not “meets expectations” or “doesn’t meet expectations.” There’s also needs improvement and exceeds expectations. And for most of us, if we don’t hit that exceeds expectations on most of the items, we feel like a failure. That means it’s implied that you shouldn’t just find out what you’re supposed to do and do that satisfactorily. You’re also supposed to know what isn’t expected and do that as well.

Why do you need to exceed expectations? Why do your new professionals? Why aren’t we setting ourselves up for success by establishing clear and realistic expectations for ourselves and our employees? Why can’t we say, “You know for the $40,000 we’re able to pay for someone in this position, this is a reasonable workload.” Sure, we start there when we’re figuring out the job description – or at least that’s our intention. But then when they get there, we wonder why they’re not doing more than that. So, you ask yourself what you’re doing wrong as a supervisor. You ask yourself, “How can I motivate them to do more?” Even if that might potentially lead to them doing an UNREASONABLE amount of work for the same salary.

So back to the coaching session last week, what I loved most about this discussion was this supervisor, a fellow Gen Xer, was very open to the idea that hey, maybe it really ISN’T something to worry about. They shared that they’ve struggled with work-life balance and investing in their own self-care. They shared how their own work ethic was inherited from their parents, one of whom was sick exactly one day in their 40-year career. Not only did this person realize they don’t need to “motivate” healthy work boundaries out of their new professionals. But they also realized it was okay for THEM to start creating those boundaries too. That’s a huge win for everyone on that team.

I titled this episode, “Motivating Your New Professionals,” but I’d like to upgrade that to, “Be Careful What Stories You Pass on to New Professionals.” The stories we have about working hard, being devoted to our field and career, and sacrificing for our institution and students doesn’t serve us. It doesn’t serve new professionals. Most folks I talk to struggle with stress and self-care, just like the supervisor I coached last week. If that describes you, why on earth would you try to persuade these new professionals who VALUE work-life balance and self-care to give that up? Gen Zers are able to set healthy work boundaries. They don’t center their identity on work or career and there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps they’re the ones who need to motivate us to take better care of ourselves and value our own work and worth.

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