Multi-Generational Leadership

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 the U.S. workforce was balanced across three working generations who are nearly at parity.  This has created an interesting moment of parity as Millennials slowly rise to dominate the workplace.

While our company is focused on studying youth, we do a fair amount of workplace consulting and are finding that the U.S. workplace is resplendent with generational misunderstanding.  While we don’t believe any of the Generational tropes that are frequently shared around the water cooler, permit us to repeat the sharper complaints we’ve heard as we interview employees of various generations across companies big and small:

Millennials are entitled, lazy and self-centered. They expect the entire organization to change to meet their needs, capriciously job-hopping with a complete lack of loyalty.

Xers are mean-spirited and cynical, acting like mercenaries seeking personal gain. They’re not team players and there’s nothing constructive about their criticism.

Boomers are staying past their welcome in the workforce as a result of having overspent and under-saved. They have brought us to the brink of ruin based on their moral crusades, insisting that everyone believe what they believe, live how they live and work how they work.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Have you huddled around the water cooler with your generational peers, remarking at how people younger (or older) than you simply “don’t get it”?

Admittedly, we’ve all lapsed into generational kvetching at one point or another. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that anyone that does it differently than you is doing it wrong.

The reality is that different generations will consistently approach the same problem from a completely different angle, deploying different skillsets and with a different definition of success in mind. Speaking once more in sweeping generalities:

Millennials, having come of age during America’s long boom, take a team-oriented approach and mitigate decision risk by developing consensus. They seek out win-win solutions where no one loses and no one gets hurt. Safety first.

Xers, having come of age during a time of great social upheaval, trust no one and take a competitive approach with a zero-sum game mindset. A generation of ‘free agents’, they aspire to reach the top by seeking high-risk situations where disproportionate rewards await the courageous and capable.

Boomers, having come of age at a time when winners and losers carved up the globe in the wake of two world wars, take an us-versus-them approach where competitors are vanquished and empires are built based on loyal tribes rallying around powerful leaders.

It’s tough for companies to be successful unless the entire team is working from the same playbook, which is why great leaders are generationally ambidextrous.

My first boss was a Boomer to the core. He rallied our little tribe against a common enemy, interpreting each new client win as the event that would ‘drive a stake through the heart’ of any competitor unlucky enough to be in his crosshairs. To his credit, he knew exactly how to get the most out of his Generation X workers: by challenging us to compete for his approval. We Xers referred to this situation within our company as the “cage match,” looking into the eyes of our formerly beloved colleague, knowing that the only way to receive our reward was to prevail. And compete we did—it was so nice to bask in the sunshine of Angus’ approval that panic set in and swords were instinctively taken up whenever the storm clouds of disapproval rolled into view.

Similarly, I know more than a few astute X’er leaders who cloak their organizations in a higher purpose or social cause, understanding that Millennials won’t come to work just to earn a living.

It’s entirely possible to understand, motivate and inspire generations that precede and follow our own. If you fully understand a generation’s perspective, you can appeal to it. Put another way, casting organizational opportunities in a light that allows each generation to bring their unique perspectives and abilities to the table isn’t manipulative, it’s an inclusive and effective way to allow everyone to make a contribution in a manner that’s aligned with their generational goals and aspirations.

If you’re interested in becoming a multi-generational leader, look no further than Millennials in the Workplace by Neil Howe.  Howe and Strauss coined the term ‘Millennials’ and in this, Neil’s last book on the Millennial generation, he manages to succinctly summarize Boomers and X’ers as well.

Dan Coates is President and Co-founder of Ypulse (www.ypulse.com).  

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