Leadership Through Integrity requires openness and the willingness to understand how generational issues can impact the organization.
For some reason, the human brain is wired to categorize people, places, things, and just about anything and everything into distinct groups. Grouping seems to be both a conscious and unconscious act. In biology there are Species, Genus, Family, Order, Class, Phylum, Kingdom, Domain, etc. Don’t worry, this is not a biology lesson.
This article is a lesson in human behavior. We just can’t help ourselves, things have to be put in a box. Some boxes are larger than others, doesn’t really matter though, everything has its place according to our brain.
~ a place for everything and everything in its place~
The topic of people is no different. We separate and categorize into Race, Creed, Color, Religion, etc. Setting those differences aside, there is a very large categorization going on that impacts every organization. Some ‘genius’ came up with the category labeling the different generations: Silents, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, etc. Conventional wisdom, at least what’s in the Internet will tell you, dictates that every generation believes that their generation is unique.
In my opinion, there is a fundamental flaw with this approach.
It may not seem apparent but the generations have more similarities than differences. The issues are different but the foundations are the same. There was a time, not that long ago, when World War I and World War II weren’t a thing. Neither weren’t cars, cell phones, computers, and the list goes on. Each generation has its own thing central to its identity. That thing is often weaponized by one generation to gain power over another.
The Changing Workforce (spoiler alert: this is not a new phenomenon)
The modern workforce is a combination of generations, each with its own unique challenges. Actually, this has always been the case, transcending history and time. I find that companies are struggling with this issue (and probably always have). Even with good intentions, many are making things worse not better.
I believe the root cause of the trouble is the approach not the generational issue itself. The flawed approach stems from the application of directives based on a generational category perspective instead of on the individual level (current actual workforce not a conceptual one).
The application of blanket categorization and identifying general common characteristics is an imperfect way to view the members of each generation. Within each category, there are productive people and there are people that are not productive at all.
There are many that live on their parent’s couches, some for their entire lives, and many that are highly successful regardless of generation. There are older workers who want to work, are productive and those that are just hanging on for retirement. There are highly proficient, motivated younger workers and many that are not. I think you get my point.
A core value of Leading Through Integrity is respect. The need to respect each person as their own unique individual, regardless of their generational alignment. Everybody has a story and everyone can learn from others, if they allow themselves. I believe that having respect across generations is a learned behavior. There’s probably a cultural influence as well, but I’m not going to go there in this article.
One of my life lessons:
I belong to the Gen X group. The common definition and conventional thought is that I am part of the ‘slacker generation’. I would strongly disagree with that, see my previous comments regarding the hazards of categorization.
Regardless, I have a point here. I learned to respect the generations around me from a very young age. Perhaps it was my family upbringing, maybe it was my family values, maybe it was my natural curiosity, I don’t really need to know the answer. I just know that I am open and welcome the input of generations before and after me.
A quick glimpse into my professional work history: I can clearly recall the first time I dealt with generational issues in a professional capacity. I was the youngest store manager of a company where I worked for 12 years as a young adult. I didn’t conform to my generational categorization.
I was the new kid, quite literally. Everybody in the organization was older than me, by a long shot. They were mostly Baby Boomers and many close to retirement. I had to learn very quickly how to be a leader and gain their respect.
One of the first things I did, I was asked questions, a lot of them. Now of course, in my own mind, I thought I knew more than they did. Sound familiar? Isn’t that is what is being said about Millennials? Back to the story: I realized, even during the early stages of my career, knowing everything or at least thinking that I knew everything really wouldn’t get me that far. I had to put aside my impulse to prove that I was smarter and better than they were.
My first generational shock, I had to terminate the employment of a salesman who was a minimum of 35 to 40 years older than me. It didn’t go well. I was professional, as much as an early twenty-something could be. I was firm and stated the facts. I kept it all business but it felt like I was firing my grandfather.
What happened you ask? He cried, a lot, the ugly sniffling cry. Holy crap! I wasn’t prepared for that! I handled it well, kept it professional and he left (after the longest 15 minutes of my life). The reality is, I probably didn’t handle it well, in fact, I’m sure I didn’t. The experience had a profound impact on me and changed me forever.
My Family – My Teachers
I was fortunate enough to have all of my grandparents well into their 90’s and even knew my great-grandfather who passed when he was 105. They collectively gave me a gift but I didn’t understand until much later in life – a generational understanding that went well beyond me. Although they taught me to look to the older generation and learn (all that I could), the experience also set me on a path to look to the younger generations. I suppose that’s the reason why I maintain friendships with people across a huge age range.
This is the perfect place to mention humility. If you haven’t already done so, I strongly suggest you read my blog post on this topic. Having the quality of humility allows an effective leader to look beyond themselves, set aside their personal opinions, and often misconceptions about generational issues. There really is only one way to find out what someone needs, a leader will ask and not dictate.
The Danger Zone
At a high level, each generation does indeed seem to have broad general common characteristics based on a shared history, experience and events. These larger themes are important to understand however they only form part of the picture.
It can be dangerous and counterproductive to make generational assumptions based solely on relying on presumptive evidence. Not a ‘lion is chasing you’ type dangerous, instead, dangerous to the health of the organization. The lack of generational awareness can result in lost revenue, high turnover, increased expenses, litigation, and the list goes on.
There is also danger in losing sight of the individual and not respecting individual differences. Generational awareness is not ‘one size fits all’. Leaders with generational awareness cultivate collaborative working environments based on mentoring and open dialogue.
Good News: Anyone Can Learn Awareness
Generational awareness is a skill that can be learned. It takes effort, intentionality and focus. A generational treasure trove awaits for those willing to engage and ask.
Effective leaders will regularly take both the pulse and monitor the blood pressure of the organization. The pulse will reveal what is needed in the current moment while the blood pressure is an indicator of longer-range issues impacting culture and overall company health. Generational awareness can be achieved by performing deliberate action at set intervals: asking questions, surveys, observation, data metrics, etc.
Generational awareness is fluid and dynamic. It takes Leadership Through Integrity to have open and honest conversations about generational issues. Company culture should not be dictated or created in a vacuum. Communication, awareness, dialogue, training, dedication and a willingness to learn are the keys to creating programs with long term success. Building cultures that are reflective of the workforce and environment.
I welcome discussion on this topic.