“Millennials will comprise more than one of three adult Americans by 2020 and 75 percent of the workforce by 2025.”

Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, Brookings (2014)

One of the most influential outcomes of the Millennials’ entry into the workforce has been the way they have reshaped workplace dynamics and particularly our understanding of work-life balance in the face of performance-driven job environments.

In the past, work and life were regarded as separate yet co-dependent entities; people worked in order to live. Nowadays this does not hold true for the younger generation of workers; they do not see a clear separation between work and life; they see both as interdependent facets or one entity that pertains to their overall quality of life.

For instance, if they were to be asked the famous enigmatic question of “do you work to live or live to work?”, they would be puzzled by the question itself. For Millennials, it is neither; they want to love what they do and live while loving what they do for a living. xThey consider work as part of their personal identity and a way to living their lives.

Millennials want to love what they do and live while loving what they do for a living. They consider work as part of their personal identity and a way to living their lives

Workplaces and subsequently leaders who do not recognize this new integrative attitude towards work-life balance, are more likely to face higher turnover rates for their Millennial employees.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the wake of the pandemic, more than 47 million employees quit their jobs in the US, and as of 2021, the average national turnover rate reached 57.3%. Research by Pew Center found that Millennials (adults between the ages of 18-29) were more likely to quit than any other age group, with 37% voluntarily leaving their jobs in 2021.

The fact Millennials not only consider but also act on voluntarily leaving their jobs is an important factor in disrupting traditional workplace power dynamics, between employers and employees. Employees and Millennials in that sense can be considered to have become the key stakeholders in an organization.

Accordingly, it becomes imperative for organizations to address their demands and cater to their needs to keep them from voluntarily leaving their jobs.

 So what can employers do to retain and keep up with Millennials? Is it only a matter of work-life balance?

Many of today’s companies have catered to the expectation of a better work-life balance for Millennials, offering them more vacation days, more flexible work hours and workdays, and some companies have even started offering remote working options, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Yet the turnover rates remain high for Millennials despite such efforts.

What the Millennials are demanding is much deeper than what practitioners have assumed on the surface as their reason for ‘job – hopping’, and consequently labelling them as a generation that is ‘entitled’, ‘lazy’, ‘don’t want to work’, and ‘want too many days off’. It is beyond wanting a better work-life balance after all.

Retaining Millennials who are voluntarily leaving their jobs requires creating environments and cultures that satisfy their psychological needs and facilitate self – integrated and intrinsic types of motivation in the workplace, by way of meeting their basic psychological needs of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. Such that when managers and companies provide environments that facilitate self-determined behaviour and thereby intrinsic motivation, they are more likely to attract and retain Millennial talent.

Millennials’ psychological needs

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy with a modern-day lens (see Figure 1) we notice that many of the Millennial generation’s basic Physiological and Safety needs are considered satisfied to a greater extent, thanks to their hard working and safety-net providing parents and family structures. With their basic physiological needs satisfied, as a generation, Millennials have shifted focus on satisfying their ‘higher-order’ psychological needs, such as belongingness, esteem of feeling accomplished, and Self – Actualization of achieving one’s full potential. This explains as to why the vernacular of Millennials is filled with higher order need’s jargon such as ‘finding meaning’, ‘having a purpose’, ‘feeling fulfilled’, ‘seeking growth and development’, ‘enjoying work’, and so on along such lines.

Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In that light, Millennials aim to fulfil their higher-order needs; they value and seek jobs and work environments that feel authentic, and congruent with the self. They are after performing tasks that feel self-integrated, and self-determined towards achieving their full potential. In the absence of such fulfilment, they are likely to leave and seek alternative jobs and work environments.

Creating environments that provide the structure for Millennials to feel ‘whole’ and ‘true to self’ in the work they do, can be done through establishing workplace cultures that satisfy their higher-order needs, such as Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. Although higher in order, these are considered the basic psychological needs required to yield positive behavioural outcomes, intrinsically-motivated, and self – determined behaviour.

Psychological-needs and enhanced motivation

The Theory of Self-Determination (SDT) purports that at the core of each individual is an innate tendency towards self-actualization; a desire to develop and grow psychologically. This desire translates into individuals wanting to take ownership in seeking experiences which they find expands their abilities and allows them to reach their potential, and at the same time they find rewarding and resonates with their sense of identity and belonging.

There are two ways in which individuals can experience tasks and behaviours as psychologically fulfilling, these are the Internalization of the behaviour or task and Intrinsic Motivation towards it. Both include the element of finding personal value and meaning in an otherwise externally imposed task or behaviour. This sense of meaning resonates with feelings of being ‘true-to self’ and reaching one’s own potential. Table 1 below explains the mechanism by which Internalization and Intrinsic Motivation enable tasks and behaviours to be experienced as psychologically fulfilling.

Once behaviour is either Internalized or the individual gains Intrinsic Motivation towards it, then that person begins to find personal value and meaning in their behaviour, they thus feel autonomous, competent, and subsequently they experience relatedness and belongingness towards their environment or workplace.

Accordingly, environments that facilitate these pathways (of Internalization and Intrinsic Motivation) will enable individuals to experience a sense of fulfilment and self – actualization that in turn leads to satisfying their psychological needs for Competence, Relatedness and Autonomy. This in turn will equip individuals with a sense of self that is aligned with the core of the person and feels authentic and intrinsically congruent with their values and beliefs. Thus, enabling them to expe rience autonomy to the extent they start to feel valuable for who they are as a person and not just for what they do at work (merely task-completion).

When a particular behaviour is a result of an experience that is fully internalized by the person, it is considered to be an intrinsically motivated behaviour.

The significance of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsically motivated behaviour is behaviour that is considered interesting by the person and brings them inherent joy and satisfaction, as opposed to being driven by a desired outcome that is extrinsic (such as pay and status).

Behaviour that is not fully intrinsically motivated can range on the motivation continuum from the lesser extreme of Amotivation (no motivation to act at all) to more internalized and thereby self-regulated degrees of motivation such as Extrinsic Motivation.

For behaviour to become Intrinsically motivated and fully autonomous, it has to become independent of external outcomes, such that behaviour is carried out beyond the reason of extrinsic rewards, but truly out of an innate drive for doing so. This is when behaviour is fully integrated with the self and fully internalized.

In Cognitive-Development practice this is referred to as Organismic Integration; in which the individual’s behavioural response to their environment are integrated and internalized. In the context of workplace job performance, Organismic Integration within the framework of SDT is said to occur when the employee operates from a place of feeling competent in their abilities, feeling connected to their peers, and feeling motivated beyond external control strategies such as rewards and pay. Overall, they are more likely to operate with

Rewards, Autonomy, and Intrinsic Motivation

According to research, as infants develop into toddlers and progress into childhood, their level of intrinsic motivation decreases; in a study that looked at children from third to eighth grades, with each increasing year the children’s scores on curiosity, preference for challenge, and independent mastery attempts, were observed to decrease. In the framework of SDT, this is suggested as resultant from the societal environment in which parents and teachers use control strategies of behavioural motivation, such as evaluations and rewards. These types of controls are considered to elicit behaviour that is extrinsically motivated as opposed to intrinsically motivated behaviour (such as a student’s innate curiosity and joy of exploration and learning).

Even further, control strategies are linked to outcomes of thwarting intrinsic motivation where it existed to begin with; for example, setting deadlines for homework or in the case of a piano learning student, having her parents put her through piano examinations thwarting her fun and inherently joyful experience of learning how to play the piano.

The more an environment continues to impose such control strategies, the inherent joy for the act itself, such as knowledge exploration and play, or learning the piano slowly diminishes as children begin to lose sense of autonomy in carrying out the behaviour as a result of conforming to societal demands and expectations. When behaviour is extrinsically motivated as a result of control strategies such as rewards, it tends to undermine intrinsic motivation, and is also found to be less autonomous.

Meaning extrinsically motivated behaviour is also behaviour that is low in autonomy. The more the behaviour becomes integrated with the self, the more the behaviour becomes aligned with a person’s own values, beliefs, and becomes their own; thus, the behaviour becomes internalized.

An increase in internalized regulation of the behaviour leads to an increase in autonomy, as the behaviour becomes more self-determined by the individual. And the person begins to carry out that behaviour as result of autonomous self-determination.

Internalization and regulation of behaviour also enables individuals to feel competent and connected (related) to their peers and teams.

What does all of this mean for managers?

In order to keep up with the Millennials, managers need to create environments that facilitate Integrated Extrinsic Motivation and Intrinsic Motivation, and to adopt leadership styles that promote Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness in the workplace. Indeed, this requires a major shift in organizational culture and leadership.

It means the best approach for keeping Millennials on the job is by motivating them on the job, which requires providing a combination of an environment that nurtures intrinsic motivation as well as one that supports higher-integrated forms of extrinsic motivation. This combination will yield a workforce that is more autonomous, more competent, and feels more connected (or relatable to each other), thereby satisfying their basic psychological needs.

Subsequently, their work attitudes and job satisfaction will increase, and ultimately will decrease turnover rates.

The nurturing of these psychological needs requires leaders to shift the focus on the individual as a unit of organizational well-being instead of the firm at large.

For example, Servant Leadership is a leadership style that is individual-focused and aims to satisfy employee’s needs and development. Servant Leadership is an offset of Transformational Leadership with the distinction of the latter’s foci being on the organization as the unit of development instead of the individual.

A Servant Leadership culture encompasses the practices of listening, awareness, stewardship, empathy, healing, commitment to professional development, conceptualization, foresight, persuasion, and the building of a community. Such elements in leadership style of Servant Leadership indeed provide the needs-satisfaction of Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence.

A few companies have adopted this approach and incorporated it into their work culture elements to nurture Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness in their work environments.

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