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Four approaches to dealing with four generations


The approach we take in dealing with the four generations determines the results we get. You, your boss, and your organization are using one of these four approaches – but which should be used to get the desired outcomes?

  1. Ignore them

    If you want to ignore generational issues, it’s easy: don’t hire people you don’t understand. Hire people like you… until they’re all dead.

    When a generation first hits the workplace, it’s easiest to ignore them. Their numbers are small, so they’re easy to miss. Even more, since they are a minority, they tend to adapt to the dress, communication styles, and approaches of the other generations. They’re wearing flip flops in the car to work, but changing before they walk in – and we are fooled into thinking that because they don’t complain about the work dress code, they don’t have a problem with it.

    I had taught about half my session in Phoenix when a man approached me and said that based on what he had learned about the generations, he had decided to hire only Baby Boomers (or Generation Xers who thought like Boomers) until he flipped his business in five years. I told him he had best find a stupid buyer for his business, because he didn’t have a sustainable business model. He hadn’t thought about passing on the knowledge of his company to younger generations. But this example is not an extreme one. In the past year, I’ve heard fifty managers or executives tell me they are done hiring Millennials.

    But with close to 50% of post-college Millennials already in the workplace, it’s hard to ignore them. And once we can no longer ignore a generation, we have three remaining choices….

  2. Fix them

    When there are too many members of another generation to ignore, we are often tempted to try to fix them. Some organizations have training programs for Millennials, and I’m all for them if the programs help them understand customers and employees of different generations. But if only the Millennials are learning about other generations, chances are that the company may be trying to “fix” the Millennials they believe are broken (meaning they’re not like the older generations).

    But fixing should really go in both directions. Both younger and older generation employees tend to disparage those who aren’t like them. We spend too much unproductive time in our organizations and families trying to fix the other generations when they don’t think there is anything wrong.

  3. Cut a deal with them

    Once half of the new generation is out of school and in the workplace, managers are forced to do something about the dress code (or work-from-home policy, or sales approach, etc.). The older generations begin cutting a deal with the new generation. (Can you believe casual Fridays haven’t always existed?)

    On a practical level, some generational differences can be solved by cutting a deal, but this is no longer the solution it was with older generations. When Gen Xers entered the workplace, the deal making accelerated because there weren’t as many of them and the labor market needed them. Remember neckties? One day, you’ll only find them in museums. Many Gen Xers decided they wouldn’t work at a place where they had to wear a tie, and the deal making began.

    “What if you only wear the tie when you’re with older clients?”
    “Okay, for how long?”
    “The whole meeting, but only if they are wearing one.”
    “Why do you Traditionalist guys wear ties at all?”

    No answer made sense to Gen X. And slowly, society cut a deal: “You don’t have to wear a tie, except in certain jobs and on certain ceremonial occasions.” Later, newly employed Millennials questioned why they had to dress up at all in the workplace if they weren’t meeting clients.

    The same generational negotiating happened in American society at large with women and girdles.

    Every new generation negotiates a deal with its elders. Thousands of Boomers and Gen Xers will fight adjusting to the more networked and casual style of the Millennials, and in ten years they won’t remember their organizations did it any other way. Smart organizations know things will shift, and they will do it gradually and with understanding rather than holding on to old habits until generational tensions erupt and they have no choice. They move from cutting a deal to the only approach that takes full advantage of the sticking points…

  4. Lead them

    You can’t cut deals with all four generations at once, and that’s a problem. No matter how much time managers spend in meetings to recraft policies, someone will be upset. Cutting too many deal becomes craziness to manage. And that’s the problem – managing it.

    Each of the first three approaches is management. Throughout history, managing has worked, but managing down isn’t getting the same results anymore. Even if managers get feedback and do focus groups, they are ultimately the ones who decide how to change policy. And in the information-driven work environment, employees struggle with the idea of not having choices and input. So what’s left? What’s left is to lead.

    Leaders love their people. We can only lead people if we start with understanding, which leads to appreciation. Only then will we stop trying to change them and love them for who they are. Once we understand others, we realize that if we had been born and raised in their circumstances, we would think more like they do. Maybe they’re not so weird after all; maybe they’ve just been shaped by their experiences like the rest of us.

    The Boomers were the last generation to respond to management; Gen Xers and Millennials respond to leadership. Gen X required a more humane management approach and less control, but because there were too few of them and they weren’t in upper management, organizations could continue to manage rather than to set the vision and then lead accordingly.

    Management build large, successful organizations, but the new generations are from a different world. The Millennials will change everything. They will continue to push organizations toward what the leadership books have been telling us for thirty years.

Which approach is your organization taking now?

[Image via flickr.com]

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