Hector had asked if we could talk at a seminar lunch break, and he gotstraight to the point: “Haydn, my team is stuck. We had an important presentation recently that started out fine but ended in disaster.” Hector Perez was a forty-three-year-oldvice president of a new division formed to help his midsize manufacturing company move into green technology. Even discouraged and noticeably tired, Hector’s hands never stopped moving. He waved his fork like an orchestra conductor as he talked: “Larry Broz, our CEO, is great. He asked me to fly in my team, who are mainly Generation Xers like me, to make our pitch to the management team for increasing the research and development spending on green technologies. Larry’s why I left a great company to come here. He may be almost seventy, but he thinks as young as I do. And my team did great. They looked professional, they knew their stuff, and even when the executive team began to throw out strong challenges, they listened and responded like they were old pros.
“But then the meeting crashed, and our proposal went with it. One of my team members, Rachel, was texting under the table. She finished quickly, but later, when the head of operations launched into one of her pet topics, which we’ve all heard many times before, Rachel began texting again, in full view of the others in the meeting. The head of operations then lectured Rachel, Rachel defended herself, and I tried to make a joke about my team texting in my meetings to ease the tension, but that got the head of ops even more fired up.
“The whole meeting just imploded,” Hector said. “Once the CEO got Sticking Together or Coming Apart 3 the head of operations calmed down, we met for another hour, but it was awkward, and the energy was gone. People were still thinking about Rachel using her cell phone rather than the strategy. Larry finally put the meeting out of its misery and asked the executive team to submit additional comments in writing.”
Hector continued, “Rachel was just doing what our whole team does in our own meetings. She texts while I’m talking, too, but it doesn’t bother me because I know she’s dialed in to what we’re doing. On the flight home, two of my people agreed that Rachel should have left her phone alone but complained that senior management is out of touch with how people communicate now. I’m stuck in the middle. The senior execs want me to keep my team in line, but my young team members wonder if they’re just spinning their wheels here, if this is the place for them long term. If senior management can’t adjust to smartphones, will they ever be able to embrace these new green technologies they want us to implement? I came here to make a difference, not keep the peace.” Hector was stuck between dueling generations.
Cindy’s and Hector’s companies didn’t know it, but they had run into seven of the twelve most common generational sticking points I’ve identified from interviewing and working with thousands of people. And Stan’s family was tangled in four different sticking points as well. Each generation in these situations thought the others were the problem. The groups tried in vain to ignore or avoid their generational differences. Typically, as at Hector’s company, the generation in charge tells a younger generation to get it together, hoping that will solve the problem. But it never does.
These groups’ approaches predictably didn’t work, and they weren’t sure why or what to do about it the next time. Generational friction is inevitable today, and “the next time” will come more and more often and create more and more tension. If only the companies and family I described had known the following:
• For the first time in history, we have four different generations in the workplace (and five in families). These generations might as well be from different countries, so different are their cultural styles and preferences.
• Of the four approaches organizations can take to blending the generations, only one of them works today.
• Focusing on the “what” escalates tensions, while focusing on the “why” pulls teams together.
• Knowing the twelve sticking points can allow teams to label tension points and work through them—even anticipate and preempt them.
• Implementing the five steps to cross-generational leadership can lead to empowering, not losing, key people.
But they didn’t know these things. And neither do most organizations or families. Sticking points are inevitable, and they often get teams and families stuck. But they don’t have to. The same generational conflicts that get teams stuck can cause teams to stick together.
Stuck in the past or sticking together going forward: it’s a matter of turning a potential liability into an asset. And it’s not that hard to do, as you will soon discover. (In later chapters, I’ll pick up the stories of Cindy, Stan, and Hector and share the advice I gave them about working through their generational sticking points.)
“They Don’t Get It”
The most common complaint I hear from frustrated people in all four generations is “They don’t get it.”
“They,” of course, means a boss, coworker, or family member from a different generation who the speaker believes is the cause of a problem. And in my experience, “it” usually refers to one of the following twelve sticking points—places where teams get stuck:
2. decision making
3. dress code
5. fun at work
6. knowledge transfer
12. work ethic
Anyone in today’s workforce can identify with most, if not all, of the twelve sticking points.
“They don’t get it” is usually a sign that a sticking point is pulling the team apart. Team members of the same generation begin tossing around stereotypes, making jokes to each other about the “offending” generation. Each generation attempts to maneuver the others into seeing the sticking point their own way.
And that’s the first mistake—viewing a sticking point as a problem to be solved rather than as an opportunity to be leveraged. The goal becomes to “fix” the offending generation rather than to look for ways to work with them. The irony is that when we say another generation doesn’t get it, we don’t get it either.
Once we get it, we realize that these sticking points are more than intergenerational differences. They are catalysts for deeper understanding and appreciation that can make teams stronger and better balanced. Sticking points can be negative if you see them as problems or positive if you see them as opportunities for greater understanding and flexibility. Sticking points can make things worse or better depending on whether the four generations can work together in the twelve places they naturally tend to come apart.
We’ll spend the next two chapters looking at why generational sticking points usually get teams stuck, and we’ll see how we can change them into the emotional glue that sticks teams together to achieve exciting results.