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Old dog, same tricks

Does it seem increasingly difficult to motivate veteran workers the closer they reach retirement? I have a friend, a 41-year-old woman who manages 10 men primarily in their 50s and 60s. This poses some unique challenges for her. While some of her employees do an excellent job, some are coasting into retirement. A few have significant difficulty taking suggestions for improvement. Most of this has to do with the fact that if they have been doing the job the same way for 30 years, why should they change for the last five? Money, competition among peers and advancement opportunities do not seem to motivate them.

My friend had success demonstrating to one employee how his results impacted her performance evaluation – it did not seem to matter to him how he fared, but he worked harder so that she would succeed! Of course, that does not work for the others. What else can she do to motivate those on the brink of retirement?

It's hard to change the habits and attitudes of those who have been with the same organization for 30 years. That said, they still have an obligation to perform according to expectations. If confronted that way, of course, some will turn it into a war. In the situation previously mentioned, gender may be a factor in the conflict. More significant however, is the issue of tenure.

If these individuals are somewhat typical of the Mature and early Boomer generations, they've been with the organization for a considerable time, maybe even the majority of their career. It has probably begun to dawn on them that they have reached the pinnacle of where they can go and now someone their daughter's age is in charge. This can be a rude emotional awakening. Different people handle it different ways, but I would try to stay attuned to that through what they say, especially if it's "off the record."  

Without being soupy about it, if it were me, I would let them know I appreciate their on-going contributions. I may diplomatically tie this into their sense of duty. I think my friend's strategy of getting them to work harder to impact your performance evaluation is spot on. Of course, this only works on some people.

As for those having difficulty with suggestions for improvement, I would use the "sandwich technique."  It begins by complimenting the person on what he's accomplishing. Then ask, "Would you mind if I gave you a little constructive feedback?" He'd be a fool to say "no." It continues with a phrase like, "I've noticed that . . ." and identifying the behavior that's concerning. Close it with, "Do you mind if I make a suggestion?"

While this may seem a little overly gentle or sappy, I have found that it tends to open people up to direction or constructive criticism. I'd be careful of saying anything that might be interpreted, "I know you're old, so you may have trouble getting this."  (Not that you would do this intentionally.)

Finally, I would close with a little more encouragement and ask for his thoughts while paying special attention to the non-verbals.

It's important to find balance between allowing veterans to continue to work in ways that make them comfortable, yet at the same time meets company expectations. If I were in my friend's shoes, I might bring it up collaboratively, saying something like, "Here's the situation. The organization is asking us to perform this way with these expectations. Rather than me trying to force something down your throats, I'd rather bring it to you. How do we work this out?" Then watch what happens.

It goes without saying my friend would be giving them the opportunity to determine their way of doing things. But if they don't choose not to do so, then it's going to be incumbent upon her to be more direct. They're bright people and will hopefully make the most of the situation. Will there be some grousing? Sure. But she should let the group handle that internally.

The bottom line is money, competition among peers and advancement opportunities all tend to lose their motivational power over time. Motivating those on the brink of retirement is about paying special attention to relationships and work environment.

Robert W. Wendover is the director of The Center for Generational Studies. Contact him at