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Motivating Older Workers

By Mary Lloyd

Getting experienced people to spend their precious hours doing work someone else needs done is not just a matter of a paycheck. As workers gain financial security on their career paths, a good grasp of what else motivates them is essential to tapping their best work.

The Great Recession has made everyone more appreciative of a steady paycheck. But payday is not your only tool in motivating employees to excel. You can only go so far with the dollars. Using non-financial motivators can take you a lot farther. When it comes to experienced workers, this is even more true. Once this downturn ends and the "war for talent" heats up, you're going to want to have some skill developed for using the following tools as well.

Respect them. There is no substitute for genuine respect if you want people to do good work. That's true for workers of any age, but even more important with those who've have extensive experience. If you are younger, they know things you don't know. You don't have to genuflect to that, but simply acknowledging it can spark a more committed work effort. Ask for their input. When it doesn't jibe with what you believe to be the case, explore why in intelligent conversation. You get a "two-fer" with this approach-a more highly motivated employee and a better problem solving process.

Foster a sense of team. It's tempting to do the "heavy lifting" with a few of your favorites from the group you manage. That's like expecting to win football games with just a quarterback and some good receivers. A positive, inclusive team effort energizes the whole work group and will help keep the experience you need available longer.

Create flexibility. When older workers consider retiring, it's not typically about wanting to do nothing all day. The brass ring of retirement is the flexibility. As Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources, noted in his October 2011 article for Talent Management Magazine, "Older workers are better on every relevant measure of job performance. They are absent less, have less turnover, have better interpersonal skills and are better at job tasks they have been performing for years." Finding ways to get the work done more flexibly can keep these high performers on the job longer.

Focusing on what's really getting done instead of who's in the office the longest every day gives a lot more room for people to have lives and do good work. Each workplace has unique challenges and opportunities for doing this, but exploring ways to get more flexibility in place is going to become more and more critical to effective staffing. This is particularly the case if you need to retain your older talent.

Appreciate their effort. No matter how old you are, having someone notice that you are doing great work gets you jazzed. Older workers are less likely to get the "attaboys" than new hires though because the thinking is "Of course she knows how to do that right-she's been doing it for 35 years!" There's greater benefit in acknowledging good performance than providing feedback that the work is acceptable though. The more you acknowledge good work, the more good work gets done. People like to be told they are doing a good job.

It's got to be sincere and relevant though. If you give "attaboys" for little dumb stuff and ignore the significant work of the job in your comments, you just come across as a bozo.

Generate enthusiasm. Getting a work team excited about the work that needs to be done is part of the manager's job. (So if you aren't worried about that, consider your own performance inadequate.) If people believe in what they are doing and have high expectations about being able to achieve what they have set out to do as a team, things are simpler across the board. Absenteeism goes down. Personnel issues go down. Productivity skyrockets.

Some assume that this is not the case for older workers. The only support for that thinking is the worn out stereotype that they're just marking time until they can retire. Most are not.

You can motivate older workers better with these additional tools. Incidentally, they work just fine with younger workers, too.