Defining Leadership

The Big Disconnect – Managing Generations – Leadership Training

Bill Benjamin asked:

“Shhuuut uuup!” said the sassy Gen Y to her astonished  manager.

 “Excuse me?” replied the shocked manager, a  Boomer.

This conversation took place recently in the boardroom at one of the  world’s largest oil and gas companies. It is a moment that crystallizes  the challenge of managing across generations in workplaces today – with  a young upstart Gen Y and her surprised Boomer manager on a potential  generational collision course.

This exchange offers a glimpse into a big problem facing workplaces  today – what could be the biggest white elephant to hit them in years -  the departure of so many ‘old’ and arrival of so many ‘different’  employees.

Generational Differences in the Workplace Today

This paper will outline how to deal with the very real challenge of  managing new generations in today’s workplaces. It will identify three  strategies to help older generation managers and leaders (Boomer and  Veteran) manage these ‘new’ employees (Generation X and Y) more  successfully. It will also challenge the widespread belief among  popular management gurus that there exists a significant ‘values’ gap  between the generations. This viewpoint is not only incorrect but  potentially damaging to successfully bridging the gap between  generations.

Specifically, it warns against the ‘values trap,’ whereby  individuals see a generation as so different from their own that  working together becomes almost untenable. It suggests that the  difference is not about values but about expectation and style. The new  generation has been taught to expect more and express differently than  the previous generations. This insight is critical to understanding how  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  Managers able to adopt the three strategies advocated in this paper are  able to create the kind of relationship that not only retains the next  generation employees more effectively (critical as talent is becoming  more scarce), but also increases engagement in that employee. The specific payoff can  be measured by discretionary effort.

Employees who score in the top quartile of engagement give 25%  more discretionary effort (extra effort) than the average. Think about what 25%  more effort from your employees would look like in your organization.

Would customers receive more value? Do you think an employee who  gives 25% more effort would go the extra mile to make sure a customer  is taken care of? Would projects be completed on time and on budget and  more innovatively if the team gave 25% more effort? How about your  sales people? Is there a greater probability that your sales reps would  meet or exceed their plans if they gave 25% more effort? The answers  are obvious; the path to get there a little more complicated, if only  because of what is written in the popular press.

The Picture is Unclear

The problem starts  with a lack of clarity:  most of the current knowledge regarding  Generation X and Y is fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions.  While there are very real differences between the diverse generations,  which we will discuss in this paper, the truth is that there is as much  or more difference within a generation than is found between one.

For instance, research conducted by Paul Fairlie, Director of  Research at the Institute for Health and  Human Potential (, found that there may be as many five different segments  that make up Generation X alone.  As such it is difficult to make a categorical statement about a group’s  values when they may be more stratified than previously thought. 

This is not to discount what so many are feeling today. There is  tension between the different generations, but then there has always  been. Up and coming generations have always been derided by those more  senior, who have gone on record as saying “this new crop of young  people is the worst in history.” Think James Dean in Rebel without a  Cause or the 1960s when a "generation gap" was first observed between  college age students and their parents. 

The difference now is that a whole lot more is riding on these  disparities. People are departing the workplace in unprecedented  numbers creating a seismic shift in workplaces, unparalleled in modern  times. Approximately 75 million employees will retire over the next  5-15 years.  The pressure this puts on organizations to find and retain top talent  is immense. This new ‘war for talent’ is shifting power away from the  group leaving (the Boomers) to the group arriving (the new Generations,  X and Y).

In other words, whether the older generation likes it or not, more  attention must be paid to the new generation in order to retain and  engage them. Focusing on a values clash is not the way to bridge this  gap.  The two standards most frequently cited in the popular press as  major differences between the younger and older generations are:

Generation X and Y are not  committed, not engaged;

Generation X and Y have an  entitlement mentality.

While these seem like very real differences on the surface, a closer  examination reveals something different. There are more expectation and  style differences than core value differences.  Moving away from values  (and an implication of bad intention): ‘they are just so different’ –  to expectation and style: ‘they do things differently,’ is the first  and critical step to effectively managing the gap between the  generations.

The  Formative Experiences of Each  Generation

Understanding differences between the generations is an important place  to start in this ‘Gordian knot’ (the famous unsolvable knot from  Alexander the Great’s time) of organizations. For each generation there  are particular ‘formative’ experiences that mold specific preferences,  expectations, beliefs and especially, style. Here is a brief  description of each the generations’ formative experiences and how they  have impacted their work and leadership styles.

The  Veteran Generation

The Veteran  Generation, born between 1922 and1945, were brought up in a more  challenging time with life experiences that included World War II and  the Great Depression.  The economic and political uncertainty that they experienced led them  to be hard working, financially conservative, and cautious.  Organizational loyalty is important to this generation, and they feel  seniority is important to advance in one’s career.  The impact on their style is that they don’t like change, are not very  risk tolerant and have a respect for authority and hard work.  This  tends to lead to a command and control style of leadership. This  generation set the rules in the workplace.

The  Boomers

The Boomers, born between 1946  and 1964, were brought up in an abundant, healthy post-war economy,  becoming one of the more egocentric of generations. They saw the world  as revolving around them – and, in large part, it did. Nuclear families  were th
e norm. More than anything, work, for the baby boomers, has been  a defining part of both their self worth and their evaluation of others.  One of the implications on their style is that they live to work.  Balance is a quaint idea but not really a pos
sibility. As such, they  see the workday as at least 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.  This is a significant  tension point between them and the newer generations, as they expect  others to have the same work ethic and work the same hours. The earlier  part of this generation followed the rules set by the veterans, the  later part, with their compounding sheer size, bent the rules.

Generation  X

The formative experiences  that influenced the X generation, born between 1965 and 1980, were that  they were the first generation to be ‘latchkey’ kids and they grew up  amidst divorce.  They were also brought up in the shadow of the influential boomer  generation. They witnessed their parents sacrifice greatly for the  ‘firm’ only to get summarily downsized. As a consequence, they  developed behaviors (not values) of independence, resilience and  adaptability more strongly than previous generations.  In opposition to the hard driving Boomers who live to work, they work  to live and view the world with a little cynicism and distrust.

Generation  Y

The Y generation, born  between 1981 and 2000, has been heralded as the next big generation, an  enormously powerful group that has the sheer numbers to transform every  life stage it enters. Â  They were brought up during the ‘empowerment years where everyone won  and no one lost (everyone got a medal). Raised by parents who nurtured  and structured their lives, they were drawn to their families for  safety and security. They were also encouraged to make their own  choices and taught to question authority. This group was also raised in  a consumer economy, and as such, expects to influence the terms and  conditions of their job. As a result, they expect employers to  accommodate their ‘consumer’ expectations in this regard.  This is the basis for the expecting more style that characterizes this  generation. They don’t necessarily see that they should get more, but  that all employees should get more from employers. And, having been  brought up with an ‘empowered’ parenting style, they are not afraid to  express it.

Generation Y (as well as X, to a lesser degree) is also the first to  grow up with computers and the Internet as a significant part of their  lives. Constant experience in the networked world has had a profound  impact on their style in approaching problem-solving situations. This  generation of worker is coming into the workforce with networking,  multipro­cessing, and global-minded skills that their elders never  could have imagined.

The advent of interactive media such as instant messaging, text  messaging, blogs, and especially multi player games have generated new  skills and styles of collaborating in these two generations that differ  from those previous. This ‘always on’ or ‘always connected’ mind-set is  at the heart of some of the friction that exists between the  generations and why the younger generation is challenged by the  rigidity of the eight to five workdays.

The (Real) Big  Disconnect

While there are different formative experiences that influence each  generation, the popular media and many generation gurus have taken  these differences between the generations too far in describing them as  a clash of values. Unfortunately, most of these observers have it wrong.

There is less difference and more  similarities than both sides appreciate.

After reviewing a study of 1,053 Americans in four generations, the  director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Everett C.  Ladd, concluded:

"The results – some of the most powerful views I have encountered in  30 years of public-opinion research – show that even though young  people buy different CDs and clothes, they do not buy into a set of  values different from their elders."

The study compared fundamental beliefs and values across four  generations and found only minimal differences. This growing body of  independent research and expert opinion shows that concerns about a  generation gap have been overstated and points to flaws in the theory  behind this conclusion.  In fact, two of the pioneers of the early academic generational research admit:

"Triumphant in popular culture, the cohort generation has been confined  by experts to the shadow world of unproven hypothesis."

Another study of 1,200 US workers examining the rewards of work  associated with performance, retention, and satisfaction found a  surprising similarity in the generations: "There was no evidence that  Generations X or Y represent any special breeds, and any differences in  the attitudes of these groups from older groups can be explained by age  rather than special circumstances in the youthful experiences of each  group."  If you look into the engagement literature, again there appears to be  even less of a difference between the generations. Across generations,  between 82 and 86% of each group are similarly engaged in their work  and share the top three engagement drivers which are:

senior management interest in employee  well-being

skill improvement in the past three  years

reputation of the organization as a  good employer.

If there was one area where there seemed more of a potential values  difference, it was in salary versus challenging work. Research we  conducted at The Institute for Health and Human Potential found while  there was very little difference across generations in a number of  areas of ‘values,’ there did seem to be a difference between  generations on the relative importance of salary versus challenging  work.

In a worldwide survey of over 2,000  individuals,  we found the following ‘generational’ agreement (agree or strongly  agree) with the statement: “I value a challenging job over and above  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 you  look more closely at the numbers, you can make the argument that the  bigger difference in this data is less generational and more gender  specific (at least within the Boomer generation). Boomer males are more  closely aligned with Gen X males and females and Gen Y females than  they are with Boomer females. As you can see, broad judgments based on  a difference in values between the generations might make for good  copy.  They do not, however, make for good science.

Overall, these results do not mean that a problem is nonexistent  between the generations; it is just a different problem. ”What we have  here,” as the old saying goes, ”is a failure to communicate,” or as  George Bernard Shaw so eloquently put it, ”The single biggest problem  in communication is the illusion it has taken place.”

It is not a generation issue per se, but a human behavior issue.  Under the pressure of time and the need to drive results, we let  emotions become drivers of our behavior. When there are perceived  differences such as those with the generations, we become overly  judgmental and have trouble moving beyond impact to intention.

As a result, when a hiccup occurs in a relationship it is much easier  to jump to conclusions, make assumptions and create the disconnections  in the manager/direct report relationship. This gets exacerbated when  there is a ‘style&rsq
uo; or expectation difference between generations, and  it worsens when the popular message is that the new generation has such  a different set of values.

The fundamental question to consider is whether the new generations’  desire for the work en
vironment differs so greatly from the older  generations.  Both the literature and anecdotal evidence do not support  a significant difference. Who wouldn’t want more flexible time, a  greater say in how the business is run or an expat assignment (working  abroad for a year or two to gain further skills in a different part of  the business) as soon as they could get it, as the Gen Xer’s want?  Or who doesn’t want to work with ‘positive people,’ be treated  ‘respectfully,’ be ‘challenged and learn new knowledge and skills,’ be  ‘paid well,’ and have more control over their environment—all wishes  that the new generations have for their workplaces. Does this list  differ significantly from previous generations

What seems clear is that the older generation is frustrated and the  younger generation is unclear of where they stand. In a survey we  conducted of 1700 individuals from around the world, we found that 63%  of Y males and 69% of Y females answered they disagreed or strongly  disagreed that “I know where I stand with my manager.” Similarly, 71%  of X males and 65% of X females disagreed or strongly disagreed to this  same question. Clarity is an antidote to anxiety and right now there is  very little clarity between the generations.

The  Way Forward

If there was no  stress, no need for results and no time pressure, this issue would  probably be dealt with in a more effective and skillful way. The truth,  of course, is that there is stress, the need for results and time  pressure. Factor in the biggest migration of workers out of the economy  ever, the evolving technology ‘disruption’ currently at work (where  some generations are jumping on it while others remain skeptical or  scared of it) and you have the perfect storm for a seemingly  generational divide. There are three ways to manage this divide that  make all the difference in the world.

1. Don’t Confuse Impact for Intent

Probably the area where a latchkey, empowered, consumer oriented,  technologically savvy younger generation’s style is causing most impact  is in the use of their voice in the workplace. Gen X or Y employees  express differently. They are not afraid to speak up for change in  their workplace. Here are three examples where a Gen X or Y’s behavior  can be misinterpreted:

Advocating for a more ‘fluid’ use of time in their  workday. They think, why not work from morning till noon, take off part  of the afternoon and then restart again at 5 p.m. and continue to  midnight? In their minds and in their ‘always on’ world, they see this  arrangement as perfectly legitimate as long as they get their work done  and meet customer expectations. For the Boomers, who are either afraid  of new technology or just simply do not understand it, the impact is  that the new generations do not seem as fully committed. After all, if  they are not ‘seen,’ they cannot be working.

The  first day on the job, the Gen Y sends an email to the CEO of the  organization with 5 suggestions on how to improve the company. This  seems helpful – why wouldn’t the CEO want an opinion on how to improve  things? The boomer manager sees that behaviour as presumptuous and rude.

The  Gen X requests an expat posting after just two years working in the  business. They think, if there is an opportunity to learn and grow, why  not me? The impact on the Boomer or Veteran is incredulousness. They  think, ”the gall of this newbie!” and see them as ‘entitled.’

Now, to be clear, there is a percentage of the new generation who do  have an entitlement mentality, are presumptuous, and who do come across  as if the world needs to cater to their every whim. The reality,  though, is that this is not a large percentage. They have the same  values as other generations; they just expect more and express  differently.  Driven by their formative experiences, they are simply  not afraid to expect more from their employers and they are certainly  not afraid to ask for more – and this catches the older generation off  guard.

Ironically, the biggest danger might be the impact that emotionally  unintelligent managers are having on the younger generations as a  result of their reactions and judgments. In a study of 2,100  individuals that we conducted, 34% of Gen Y males, 37% of Gen Y females  and 42% of Gen X males and females agreed or strongly agreed with the  statement. I don’t think my manger truly know he/she impacts me.. Given  the fact that employees leave managers and not organizations­,  emotionally unintelligent managers unable to deal with the frustration  that comes with managing the younger generation can be a recipe for  disaster.  Not only does this impacted group not want to give extra  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.  Partisan politics begin with a difference in values. Bridging the  generation gap does not happen if it is fought on values, nor is there  research to prove that a significant difference exists in their values.  As Abraham Lincoln said, “I do not like that man. I must get to know  him better.” Getting to know the new generation – getting to their side  of the bridge to connect with their preferred style and expectations is  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 needs  to be constructed. This notion of building bridges is the basis of  IHHP’s Emotional Intelligence training program, see also  This program focuses on giving tools to individuals and leaders to  perform better under pressure in order to manage differences between  generations more constructively. This, in turn, will drive results.

Most individuals understand the value of connecting to another  person’s perspective. However, most people do this by starting from  their own side of the bridge, explaining their perspective first in  their attempt at connecting to other individuals and generations. With  very good intention, and without knowing any better, they build the  bridge from their own side and assemble it toward the other person.  Unfortunately, this has limited success. 

The more effective way to connect to other generations is to start  from the other side of the bridge and build it backwards, step by step,  toward themselves. Entering into the conversation or situation,  thinking about what is going on for the other person, can make all the  difference in the world. What is their reality? Their expectation? What  might they be really asking for in their request? What emotion might be  driving their behaviour? What might be their true intention in this  situation? As opposed to jumping to a judgment based on a stereotype  and a style difference, moving to their side of the bridge and thinking  about their intention can transform the interaction. 

Over time, this approach builds a more robust ‘bridge’ or connection  that allows the relationship to withstand most events that occur under  stress. As a leader of a national grocery store chain (who was  interviewed for this paper) described, “The difference now is going  from having a discussion with the new generation about their reality to  ac
tually having them at the table.” Having them at the table, getting  on their side of the bridge can help a leader see their true intention  which is, style and expectation aside, the same as their own; to do  great work, learn
, grow and contribute.”


(Going back to the conversation that  started on page one…)

“What exactly did you mean by that?”  the Boomer asks.

“Mean by what?’ the Gen Y responds.

“Shuuuut uppp?” the Boomer asks,  emphasizing the Gen Y’s interesting pronunciation.

“Oh, you know, like wow, I never knew that! That’s amazing! I really  didn’t mean anything by it. Just having fun with you. Did I offend you?”

“Well, I really wasn’t exactly sure  what you meant.”

“I’m sorry, I got carried away. I think  I just got excited because I love the work and I really like working here.”

Controlling his emotional impulse to react to the obvious affront  was not easy for the Boomer. Suspending judgment to get more  information and move to the Gen Y’s side of the bridge was harder  still. The impact of managers who can manage their emotions in a moment  like this creates the opportunity for people with the same basic values  to move beyond style and expectation differences and function in a new,  more powerful way.

With the coming demographic shift, organizations with people who do  not confuse impact for intention, are trained to bridge the gap, and  who remain mindful of the values trap will be the organizations to win  the coming war for talent.  In this way, they will retain and engage  the next generation of employees.



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