Monday, September 9, 2013

Inter-generational Conflict - This is another chapter from my book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers" available from CRC Press (Taylor & Francis)

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This past winter I was asked to go into a mid-sized technology firm and deliver a conference presentation on intergenerational communication.  When I started asking questions to find out exactly what they meant and what they wanted from me, a familiar pattern emerged: Employees of different generations, working together but not understanding each other and assuming the worst about each other’s intentions. 
The business impact of this lack of trust and poor communication was that the firm’s external clients were experiencing delays in product delivery and poor customer service.  Some senior managers were defaulting to very authoritarian leadership styles with a predictable outcome:  A steady trickle of young, promising employees were quitting, taking their knowledge and skill sets elsewhere.
Suspicion and mistrust between the generations have been facts of life at work at least since ancient Athens.  Why are these issues such a big deal today? What makes the current situation absolutely unprecedented in history is the explosive development of new technology, the rapid expansion of the globalized economy, both combined with a highly unusual demographic pattern in the workforce. 
Simply the presence of 4 generations in the workplace at the same time creates tension. The Veterans, born before 1946, are still around, although in diminishing numbers as they retire; many of the Boomers, born between ’46 and ’64, are now in senior leadership roles. Generation X, born between ’65 and ’79 are taking over from the Boomers and Veterans while Generation Y, born since 1980, is beginning to move into the workforce in large numbers.  Demographers disagree about exactly which years represent the specific generations and their labels, but the consensus seems to be that prevailing generational characteristics shift roughly every 20 years.
Interesting stuff, but I knew my audience would not respond well to a lecture on demographics and economics.  They had a real-time business problem that would not be improved by a dry, academic presentation on theories and trends.
My client’s employees needed to understand the basic differences in how the generations see the world, so I put together a slide presentation that covered the origins of the differences between each generation (different historical contexts and extremely different child-rearing norms), the impact of these differences on lifestyle and most importantly on work style.  This presentation concluded with a module on how to communicate with each generation and how to manage Gen Y.
But I knew I couldn’t get away with just subjecting my audience two hours of PowerPoint.  They needed much more than my research and my imagined –and certainly limited- expertise.  So I asked for two volunteers from each of the generations to join a panel at the front of the room for a discussion.  I worked this panel through a number of discussion questions such as “What don’t you understand about other generations who work with you and how they communicate?”, “What do other generations need to understand about your generation?” and “If you could fix only two things about other generations and how they communicate, what would those two things be?”
  • GIVE them the big picture
  • TELL them they can make an important contribution to the success of the team
  • RECOGNIZE them by providing recognition and increased profile
  • INDIVIDUAL Boomers may prefer phone or face-to-face over e-mail
  • ACKNOWLEDGE their experience and recognize that they have ‘paid their dues’

  • APPEAL to their sense of personal loyalty, not loyalty to the organization
  • GIVE them a way to ‘buy into’ a project rather than bark orders at them
  • THEY respond better to short-term objectives rather than long-term goals
  • TELL them what needs to be done, but not how
  • GIVE them multiple tasks but allow them to set priorities
  • REMEMBER that they respond best to informal recognition rather than formal acknowledgement such as a plaque on the wall
  • GIVE them opportunities for continuous learning and building skills
  • FIND OUT their goals then explain how these goals fit into your organization’s big picture
  • BE more of a coach, less of a boss
  • COMMUNICATE with them via informal hallway conversations & e-mail
  • GIVE lots of feedback and recognition
  • DO not rant or humiliate when giving constructive feedback
  • REMEMBER that they will not tolerate inauthentic leadership.  Instead they will leave
  • ASK rather than tell
  • REMEMBER that for them, the teambuilding rituals so important to Boomers are simply a waste of time
  • KEEP IN MIND that they work to support their lifestyles outside of work, not out of any sense of loyalty to a larger entity such as their employer
  • ANTICIPATE their needs for work/life balance, authentic leadership and continuous learning
  • GIVE them a clear picture of their career future and how they can advance
  • ASK them for input on decisions that will affect them
  • AVOID criticisms and reprimands; instead point out errors, remain emotionally neutral, offer positive alternative approaches and make immediately create plans for improvement
At the end of the discussion I invited the audience to respond to a few of the questions put to the panel by writing their answers on Post-It Notes without their names then sticking these notes up on the wall for all to read.  Apart from one snarling remark (“Send Gen Y off to Boot Camp”), the overwhelming tone of the answers was of tolerance and a need to accept people of all ages for who they are and appreciate what they can bring to their work.

The job of today’s managers, business owners and entrepreneurs is to find ways to leverage each generation’s distinctive talents.

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