Bill Benjamin asked:
“Shhuuut uuup!” said the sassy Gen Y to her astonishedÂ manager.
“Excuse me?” replied the shocked manager, aÂ Boomer.
This conversation took place recently in the boardroom at one of theÂ world’s largest oil and gas companies. It is a moment that crystallizesÂ the challenge of managing across generations in workplaces today – withÂ a young upstart Gen Y and her surprised Boomer manager on a potentialÂ generational collision course.
This exchange offers a glimpse into a big problem facing workplacesÂ today – what could be the biggest white elephant to hit them in years -Â the departure of so many ‘old’ and arrival of so many ‘different’Â employees.
Generational Differences in the Workplace Today
This paper will outline how to deal with the very real challenge ofÂ managing new generations in today’s workplaces. It will identify threeÂ strategies to help older generation managers and leaders (Boomer andÂ Veteran) manage these ‘new’ employees (Generation X and Y) moreÂ successfully. It will also challenge the widespread belief amongÂ popular management gurus that there exists a significant ‘values’ gapÂ between the generations. This viewpoint is not only incorrect butÂ potentially damaging to successfully bridging the gap betweenÂ generations.
Specifically, it warns against the ‘values trap,’ wherebyÂ individuals see a generation as so different from their own thatÂ working together becomes almost untenable. It suggests that theÂ difference is not about values but about expectation and style. The newÂ generation has been taught to expect more and express differently thanÂ the previous generations. This insight is critical to understanding howÂ best to manage the next generation.
The Payoff for Getting it Right
Learning how to get it right will take a higher level of emotional intelligence than most managers’ exhibit today but the payoff will be immense, see also http://ihhp.com/what_is_eq.htm.Â Managers able to adopt the three strategies advocated in this paper areÂ able to create the kind of relationship that not only retains the nextÂ generation employees more effectively (critical as talent is becomingÂ more scarce), but also increases engagement in that employee. The specific payoff canÂ be measured by discretionary effort.
Employees who score in the top quartile of engagement give 25%Â more discretionary effort (extra effort) than the average. Think about what 25%Â more effort from your employees would look like in your organization.
Would customers receive more value? Do you think an employee whoÂ gives 25% more effort would go the extra mile to make sure a customerÂ is taken care of? Would projects be completed on time and on budget andÂ more innovatively if the team gave 25% more effort? How about yourÂ sales people? Is there a greater probability that your sales reps wouldÂ meet or exceed their plans if they gave 25% more effort? The answersÂ are obvious; the path to get there a little more complicated, if onlyÂ because of what is written in the popular press.
The Picture is Unclear
The problem startsÂ with a lack of clarity: most of the current knowledge regardingÂ Generation X and Y is fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions.Â While there are very real differences between the diverse generations,Â which we will discuss in this paper, the truth is that there is as muchÂ or more difference within a generation than is found between one.
For instance, research conducted by Paul Fairlie, Director ofÂ Research at the Institute for Health andÂ Human Potential (http://ihhp.com/index.htm), found that there may be as many five different segmentsÂ that make up Generation X alone.Â As such it is difficult to make a categorical statement about a group’sÂ values when they may be more stratified than previously thought.
This is not to discount what so many are feeling today. There isÂ tension between the different generations, but then there has alwaysÂ been. Up and coming generations have always been derided by those moreÂ senior, who have gone on record as saying “this new crop of youngÂ people is the worst in history.” Think James Dean in Rebel without aÂ Cause or the 1960s when a "generation gap" was first observed betweenÂ college age students and their parents.
The difference now is that a whole lot more is riding on theseÂ disparities. People are departing the workplace in unprecedentedÂ numbers creating a seismic shift in workplaces, unparalleled in modernÂ times. Approximately 75 million employees will retire over the nextÂ 5-15 years.Â The pressure this puts on organizations to find and retain top talentÂ is immense. This new ‘war for talent’ is shifting power away from theÂ group leaving (the Boomers) to the group arriving (the new Generations,Â X and Y).
In other words, whether the older generation likes it or not, moreÂ attention must be paid to the new generation in order to retain andÂ engage them. Focusing on a values clash is not the way to bridge thisÂ gap. The two standards most frequently cited in the popular press asÂ major differences between the younger and older generations are:
Generation X and Y are notÂ committed, not engaged;
Generation X and Y have anÂ entitlement mentality.
While these seem like very real differences on the surface, a closerÂ examination reveals something different. There are more expectation andÂ style differences than core value differences. Moving away from valuesÂ (and an implication of bad intention): ‘they are just so different’ –Â to expectation and style: ‘they do things differently,’ is the firstÂ and critical step to effectively managing the gap between theÂ generations.
TheÂ Formative Experiences of EachÂ Generation
Understanding differences between the generations is an important placeÂ to start in this ‘Gordian knot’ (the famous unsolvable knot fromÂ Alexander the Great’s time) of organizations. For each generation thereÂ are particular ‘formative’ experiences that mold specific preferences,Â expectations, beliefs and especially, style. Here is a briefÂ description of each the generations’ formative experiences and how theyÂ have impacted their work and leadership styles.
TheÂ Veteran Generation
The VeteranÂ Generation, born between 1922 and1945, were brought up in a moreÂ challenging time with life experiences that included World War II andÂ the Great Depression.Â The economic and political uncertainty that they experienced led themÂ to be hard working, financially conservative, and cautious.Â Organizational loyalty is important to this generation, and they feelÂ seniority is important to advance in one’s career.Â The impact on their style is that they don’t like change, are not veryÂ risk tolerant and have a respect for authority and hard work. ThisÂ tends to lead to a command and control style of leadership. ThisÂ generation set the rules in the workplace.
The Boomers, born between 1946Â and 1964, were brought up in an abundant, healthy post-war economy,Â becoming one of the more egocentric of generations. They saw the worldÂ as revolving around them – and, in large part, it did. Nuclear familiesÂ were th
e norm. More than anything, work, for the baby boomers, has beenÂ a defining part of both their self worth and their evaluation of others.Â One of the implications on their style is that they live to work.Â Balance is a quaint idea but not really a pos
sibility. As such, theyÂ see the workday as at least 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is a significantÂ tension point between them and the newer generations, as they expectÂ others to have the same work ethic and work the same hours. The earlierÂ part of this generation followed the rules set by the veterans, theÂ later part, with their compounding sheer size, bent the rules.
The formative experiencesÂ that influenced the X generation, born between 1965 and 1980, were thatÂ they were the first generation to be ‘latchkey’ kids and they grew upÂ amidst divorce.Â They were also brought up in the shadow of the influential boomerÂ generation. They witnessed their parents sacrifice greatly for theÂ ‘firm’ only to get summarily downsized. As a consequence, theyÂ developed behaviors (not values) of independence, resilience andÂ adaptability more strongly than previous generations.Â In opposition to the hard driving Boomers who live to work, they workÂ to live and view the world with a little cynicism and distrust.
The Y generation, bornÂ between 1981 and 2000, has been heralded as the next big generation, anÂ enormously powerful group that has the sheer numbers to transform everyÂ life stage it enters. Â They were brought up during the ‘empowerment years where everyone wonÂ and no one lost (everyone got a medal). Raised by parents who nurturedÂ and structured their lives, they were drawn to their families forÂ safety and security. They were also encouraged to make their ownÂ choices and taught to question authority. This group was also raised inÂ a consumer economy, and as such, expects to influence the terms andÂ conditions of their job. As a result, they expect employers toÂ accommodate their ‘consumer’ expectations in this regard.Â This is the basis for the expecting more style that characterizes thisÂ generation. They don’t necessarily see that they should get more, butÂ that all employees should get more from employers. And, having beenÂ brought up with an ‘empowered’ parenting style, they are not afraid toÂ express it.
Generation Y (as well as X, to a lesser degree) is also the first toÂ grow up with computers and the Internet as a significant part of theirÂ lives. Constant experience in the networked world has had a profoundÂ impact on their style in approaching problem-solving situations. ThisÂ generation of worker is coming into the workforce with networking,Â multiprocessing, and global-minded skills that their elders neverÂ could have imagined.
The advent of interactive media such as instant messaging, textÂ messaging, blogs, and especially multi player games have generated newÂ skills and styles of collaborating in these two generations that differÂ from those previous. This ‘always on’ or ‘always connected’ mind-set isÂ at the heart of some of the friction that exists between theÂ generations and why the younger generation is challenged by theÂ rigidity of the eight to five workdays.
The (Real) BigÂ Disconnect
While there are different formative experiences that influence eachÂ generation, the popular media and many generation gurus have takenÂ these differences between the generations too far in describing them asÂ a clash of values. Unfortunately, most of these observers have it wrong.
There is less difference and moreÂ similarities than both sides appreciate.
After reviewing a study of 1,053 Americans in four generations, theÂ director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Everett C.Â Ladd, concluded:
"The results – some of the most powerful views I have encountered inÂ 30 years of public-opinion research – show that even though youngÂ people buy different CDs and clothes, they do not buy into a set ofÂ values different from their elders."
The study compared fundamental beliefs and values across fourÂ generations and found only minimal differences. This growing body ofÂ independent research and expert opinion shows that concerns about aÂ generation gap have been overstated and points to flaws in the theoryÂ behind this conclusion.Â In fact, two of the pioneers of the early academic generational research admit:
"Triumphant in popular culture, the cohort generation has been confinedÂ by experts to the shadow world of unproven hypothesis."
Another study of 1,200 US workers examining the rewards of workÂ associated with performance, retention, and satisfaction found aÂ surprising similarity in the generations: "There was no evidence thatÂ Generations X or Y represent any special breeds, and any differences inÂ the attitudes of these groups from older groups can be explained by ageÂ rather than special circumstances in the youthful experiences of eachÂ group."Â If you look into the engagement literature, again there appears to beÂ even less of a difference between the generations. Across generations,Â between 82 and 86% of each group are similarly engaged in their workÂ and share the top three engagement drivers which are:
senior management interest in employeeÂ well-being
skill improvement in the past threeÂ years
reputation of the organization as aÂ good employer.
If there was one area where there seemed more of a potential valuesÂ difference, it was in salary versus challenging work. Research weÂ conducted at The Institute for Health and Human Potential found whileÂ there was very little difference across generations in a number ofÂ areas of ‘values,’ there did seem to be a difference betweenÂ generations on the relative importance of salary versus challengingÂ work.
In a worldwide survey of over 2,000Â individuals,Â we found the following ‘generational’ agreement (agree or stronglyÂ agree) with the statement: “I value a challenging job over and aboveÂ salary.”
44% of Gen Y males;
48% of Gen Y females;
58% of Gen X males;
54% of Gen X females;
57% of Boomer males;
69% of Boomer females.
While there seems a values gap at first glance at this data, if youÂ look more closely at the numbers, you can make the argument that theÂ bigger difference in this data is less generational and more genderÂ specific (at least within the Boomer generation). Boomer males are moreÂ closely aligned with Gen X males and females and Gen Y females thanÂ they are with Boomer females. As you can see, broad judgments based onÂ a difference in values between the generations might make for goodÂ copy. They do not, however, make for good science.
Overall, these results do not mean that a problem is nonexistentÂ between the generations; it is just a different problem. ”What we haveÂ here,” as the old saying goes, ”is a failure to communicate,” or asÂ George Bernard Shaw so eloquently put it, ”The single biggest problemÂ in communication is the illusion it has taken place.”
It is not a generation issue per se, but a human behavior issue.Â Under the pressure of time and the need to drive results, we letÂ emotions become drivers of our behavior. When there are perceivedÂ differences such as those with the generations, we become overlyÂ judgmental and have trouble moving beyond impact to intention.
As a result, when a hiccup occurs in a relationship it is much easierÂ to jump to conclusions, make assumptions and create the disconnectionsÂ in the manager/direct report relationship. This gets exacerbated whenÂ there is a ‘style&rsq
uo; or expectation difference between generations, andÂ it worsens when the popular message is that the new generation has suchÂ a different set of values.
The fundamental question to consider is whether the new generations’Â desire for the work en
vironment differs so greatly from the olderÂ generations. Both the literature and anecdotal evidence do not supportÂ a significant difference. Who wouldn’t want more flexible time, aÂ greater say in how the business is run or an expat assignment (workingÂ abroad for a year or two to gain further skills in a different part ofÂ the business) as soon as they could get it, as the Gen Xer’s want?Â Or who doesn’t want to work with ‘positive people,’ be treatedÂ ‘respectfully,’ be ‘challenged and learn new knowledge and skills,’ beÂ ‘paid well,’ and have more control over their environment—all wishesÂ that the new generations have for their workplaces. Does this listÂ differ significantly from previous generations
What seems clear is that the older generation is frustrated and theÂ younger generation is unclear of where they stand. In a survey weÂ conducted of 1700 individuals from around the world, we found that 63%Â of Y males and 69% of Y females answered they disagreed or stronglyÂ disagreed that “I know where I stand with my manager.” Similarly, 71%Â of X males and 65% of X females disagreed or strongly disagreed to thisÂ same question. Clarity is an antidote to anxiety and right now there isÂ very little clarity between the generations.
TheÂ Way Forward
If there was noÂ stress, no need for results and no time pressure, this issue wouldÂ probably be dealt with in a more effective and skillful way. The truth,Â of course, is that there is stress, the need for results and timeÂ pressure. Factor in the biggest migration of workers out of the economyÂ ever, the evolving technology ‘disruption’ currently at work (whereÂ some generations are jumping on it while others remain skeptical orÂ scared of it) and you have the perfect storm for a seeminglyÂ generational divide. There are three ways to manage this divide thatÂ make all the difference in the world.
1. Don’t Confuse Impact for Intent
Probably the area where a latchkey, empowered, consumer oriented,Â technologically savvy younger generation’s style is causing most impactÂ is in the use of their voice in the workplace. Gen X or Y employeesÂ express differently. They are not afraid to speak up for change inÂ their workplace. Here are three examples where a Gen X or Y’s behaviorÂ can be misinterpreted:
Advocating for a more ‘fluid’ use of time in theirÂ workday. They think, why not work from morning till noon, take off partÂ of the afternoon and then restart again at 5 p.m. and continue toÂ midnight? In their minds and in their ‘always on’ world, they see thisÂ arrangement as perfectly legitimate as long as they get their work doneÂ and meet customer expectations. For the Boomers, who are either afraidÂ of new technology or just simply do not understand it, the impact isÂ that the new generations do not seem as fully committed. After all, ifÂ they are not ‘seen,’ they cannot be working.
TheÂ first day on the job, the Gen Y sends an email to the CEO of theÂ organization with 5 suggestions on how to improve the company. ThisÂ seems helpful – why wouldn’t the CEO want an opinion on how to improveÂ things? The boomer manager sees that behaviour as presumptuous and rude.
TheÂ Gen X requests an expat posting after just two years working in theÂ business. They think, if there is an opportunity to learn and grow, whyÂ not me? The impact on the Boomer or Veteran is incredulousness. TheyÂ think, ”the gall of this newbie!” and see them as ‘entitled.’
Now, to be clear, there is a percentage of the new generation who doÂ have an entitlement mentality, are presumptuous, and who do come acrossÂ as if the world needs to cater to their every whim. The reality,Â though, is that this is not a large percentage. They have the sameÂ values as other generations; they just expect more and expressÂ differently. Driven by their formative experiences, they are simplyÂ not afraid to expect more from their employers and they are certainlyÂ not afraid to ask for more – and this catches the older generation offÂ guard.
Ironically, the biggest danger might be the impact that emotionallyÂ unintelligent managers are having on the younger generations as aÂ result of their reactions and judgments. In a study of 2,100Â individuals that we conducted, 34% of Gen Y males, 37% of Gen Y femalesÂ and 42% of Gen X males and females agreed or strongly agreed with theÂ statement. I don’t think my manger truly know he/she impacts me.. GivenÂ the fact that employees leave managers and not organizations,Â emotionally unintelligent managers unable to deal with the frustrationÂ that comes with managing the younger generation can be a recipe forÂ disaster. Not only does this impacted group not want to give extraÂ effort, but they will be more likely to leave.
2. Don’t fall into the ‘Trap of Values’
Avoiding this trap cannot be overstated. Wars are fought on values.Â Partisan politics begin with a difference in values. Bridging theÂ generation gap does not happen if it is fought on values, nor is thereÂ research to prove that a significant difference exists in their values.Â As Abraham Lincoln said, “I do not like that man. I must get to knowÂ him better.” Getting to know the new generation – getting to their sideÂ of the bridge to connect with their preferred style and expectations isÂ critical for successfully managing the next generation.
3. Start From Their Side of the Bridge
In order to connect with members of other generations, a bridge needsÂ to be constructed. This notion of building bridges is the basis ofÂ IHHP’s Emotional Intelligence training program, see alsoÂ http://www.ihhp.com/upcoming_programs.htm#2-day.Â This program focuses on giving tools to individuals and leaders toÂ perform better under pressure in order to manage differences betweenÂ generations more constructively. This, in turn, will drive results.
Most individuals understand the value of connecting to anotherÂ person’s perspective. However, most people do this by starting fromÂ their own side of the bridge, explaining their perspective first inÂ their attempt at connecting to other individuals and generations. WithÂ very good intention, and without knowing any better, they build theÂ bridge from their own side and assemble it toward the other person.Â Unfortunately, this has limited success.
The more effective way to connect to other generations is to startÂ from the other side of the bridge and build it backwards, step by step,Â toward themselves. Entering into the conversation or situation,Â thinking about what is going on for the other person, can make all theÂ difference in the world. What is their reality? Their expectation? WhatÂ might they be really asking for in their request? What emotion might beÂ driving their behaviour? What might be their true intention in thisÂ situation? As opposed to jumping to a judgment based on a stereotypeÂ and a style difference, moving to their side of the bridge and thinkingÂ about their intention can transform the interaction.
Over time, this approach builds a more robust ‘bridge’ or connectionÂ that allows the relationship to withstand most events that occur underÂ stress. As a leader of a national grocery store chain (who wasÂ interviewed for this paper) described, “The difference now is goingÂ from having a discussion with the new generation about their reality toÂ ac
tually having them at the table.” Having them at the table, gettingÂ on their side of the bridge can help a leader see their true intentionÂ which is, style and expectation aside, the same as their own; to doÂ great work, learn
, grow and contribute.”
(Going back to the conversation thatÂ started on page one…)
“What exactly did you mean by that?”Â the Boomer asks.
“Mean by what?’ the Gen Y responds.
“Shuuuut uppp?” the Boomer asks,Â emphasizing the Gen Y’s interesting pronunciation.
“Oh, you know, like wow, I never knew that! That’s amazing! I reallyÂ didn’t mean anything by it. Just having fun with you. Did I offend you?”
“Well, I really wasn’t exactly sureÂ what you meant.”
“I’m sorry, I got carried away. I thinkÂ I just got excited because I love the work and I really like working here.”
Controlling his emotional impulse to react to the obvious affrontÂ was not easy for the Boomer. Suspending judgment to get moreÂ information and move to the Gen Y’s side of the bridge was harderÂ still. The impact of managers who can manage their emotions in a momentÂ like this creates the opportunity for people with the same basic valuesÂ to move beyond style and expectation differences and function in a new,Â more powerful way.
With the coming demographic shift, organizations with people who doÂ not confuse impact for intention, are trained to bridge the gap, andÂ who remain mindful of the values trap will be the organizations to winÂ the coming war for talent. In this way, they will retain and engageÂ the next generation of employees.