If you want to understand how to motivate millennials at work, consider Instagram

Instagramer SHIHO and her friend look at their mobile after taking photos of Anywhere Door’s ‘Cotton Candy Ice’ during the Photogenic Sweets Festa at a…
Instagramer SHIHO and her friend look at their mobile after taking photos of Anywhere Door’s ‘Cotton Candy Ice’ during the Photogenic Sweets Festa at a…
Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai
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Imagine for a moment that your workplace functioned with the same dynamics and incentives as a social network like Instagram.

In that world, an ordinary act—let’s say submitting your expense report to your boss—would be met with some pretty extraordinary validation.

Within seconds of hitting “Send,” you would receive dozens of comments from colleagues saying how terrific your work was.

“OMG that is AMAZING!!!!”

“So cool!”

“Great work! GOAT!”

People would stop by your desk to congratulate you on getting it in on time. Someone might even bring you a little heart-shaped sticker to wear on your shirt. Your boss would share copies of your expenses with everyone he knows with a note that says “#MUSTREAD!”

Throughout the day, you would enjoy a steady stream of praise, as more and more people became enthralled by how much you’d spent on taxis and cappuccinos. You’d get notifications that say things like “Pradeep just read your amazing report!” Your expenses wouldn’t actually need to add up. After all, the only people assessing them would be those predisposed and hand-selected to affirm you, offering dose after dose of personalized delight.

Contrast this experience with something that looks a lot more like reality.

A twenty-three-year-old assistant spends all weekend on a new marketing idea he has for his company. He is super-excited about it, and goes above and beyond to put together a slide-deck that lays out his thinking. He emails it to his boss first thing Monday.

And then he waits.
On Wednesday he sends a follow-up, just to check she’s received it. 
On Friday, he gets a note back apologizing, saying she’s been at a conference, and will get to it next week.

The Thursday after that, she finally emails back, saying, “Interesting… Thanks for sharing.”

It is both easy and common to cast a new generation of workers as narcissists: whiny millennials desperate to spend every moment talking about themselves and their feelings, and expecting a medal for doing so. But it is smarter to see these expectations as signals that the workplace has failed to create the satisfying feedback loops that have multiplied in other aspects of our lives. Research from the Young Entrepreneur Council shows that 80% of millennials would prefer to get feedback in “real time.” A 2014 Millennial Impact Report showed that “more than half (53%) of respondents said having their passions and talents recognized and addressed is their top reason for remaining at their current company.”

We call this group the “new power” generation. They grew up in a hyperconnected world where—increasingly—they expect power to flow differently. They are rejecting the models and traditions of the “old power” world, where everyone knew their place, served their time and paid their dues. Instead they hold a belief in their “inalienable right to participate”—just look to the recent achievements of the Parkland High School Students.

For most, their lives are punctuated (perhaps even defined) by the validation and engagement of others. Every text, every image, every post is a call designed for a response: the drip-drip-drip of dopamine-reward they receive from every heart-shaped like. Even their dating lives are adjudicated by strangers looking at carefully curated photos and deciding to swipe left or swipe right. Being judged, in explicit and implicit ways, is part of their lives. It is how they navigate, guided by a galaxy of digital North Stars that shape, encourage, and catalyze every move.

Their lives are rich in data, too. They measure their steps, calories, heart rate, and sleep. Think of the experience the millennial worker has as he runs home from work using the Nike running app. He gets instant information on his speed and pace, dressed up with a nice map of the route ahead. He can “get cheers” from his Facebook community, which can track his progress in real time and applaud. He can compare his times with his previous times and those of his friends. Once he completes his run, his stats are posted to his community for their validation and admiration. Then an Olympic gold medalist praises him via his Bluetooth headphones. (Believe it or not, there is now even “wearable” technology that monitors a person’s energy levels in the bedroom. On completion, a mobile app offers you a score.)

Indeed, in our digital lives, we are increasingly conditioned to get badges and status upgrades for doing little more than showing up. One of Snapchat’s core features is its “trophy case,” where you can display the trinkets you have been awarded for such Olympian feats as “Verified your email address in Settings” and “Sent a snap with one filter applied.”

Of course, for many young workers this is the story not just of their digital lives, but also of their childhoods. They were raised as part of a “trophy generation,” recognized for the act of participation rather than the level of performance, getting medals and lavish praise just for completing the race. The parenting philosophy that governed their early years—build self-esteem above all—conspires to deliver the same artificial feedback loops as most social networks: persuading the individual that the ordinary moments of their lives are actually of extraordinary value. Those who enter the workplace with this mindset often find that reality bites hard. And so do their bosses.

Emerging approaches are helping organizations meet this new type of worker on her own terms. The online service TINYpulse, for instance, is a user-friendly solution that asks employees one simple question each week. This provides two benefits. First, it offers an outlet for those expecting a chance to share their views. Second, it provides managers with regular doses of data that can be aggregated, analyzed, and, ideally, acted upon. Playful and friendly, the “voice” of TINYpulse sounds nothing like corporate-speak. Questions like “If your company were an animal, what would it be and why?” line up next to “Do you intend to be working here in 12 months?” It is a far cry from the traditional staff survey that is rolled out annually and then disappears quietly into the graveyard that is the company intranet. And it only takes two minutes. It has been adopted by IBM, Facebook, and Airbnb, among others. One of its most popular features is its “cheers for peers” function. A peer-to-peer digital recognition system, it lets everyone from the boss to the intern publicly recognize their colleagues for good work.

Products like TINYpulse offer a hint of what is to come: managers receiving and delivering feedback to new power workers in a way they’re familiar with—drip-drip-drip style. To capture the talents and energy of the new power generation, the workplace will need to borrow from the user experiences—and deeply fulfilling feedback loops—they enjoy in their social lives.

But the burden here is not simply on management to shape a workplace that replicates some of the dynamics of a social network. It is also on the worker to distinguish between the dopamine-fueled hits that they have come to expect, and the genuine professional feedback they need to improve. Social networks like Instagram are so transfixing precisely because they deliver artificial feedback loops—delivering immediate, almost exclusively positive and heavily biased peer-validation.

Those who come out on top will draw a sharp distinction between their boss, who is there to help them grow and develop, and their followers, who are simply there to cheer them on.

This article has been adapted from New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You. It has been republished with permission from Doubleday.