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GILD 2013: Leading in a multi-generational workforce

October 15, 2013
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Tamara J. Erickson, McKinsey Award-winning author.

When was the last time you grumbled about the attitude of that recent college grad you hired? Or complained about the senior manager who may have 30 years of experience but just doesn’t get it? As Tammy Erickson explained in her session on “Leading a Multi-Generational Workforce,” you may be looking at them all wrong.

According to Jean Piaget’s model of development, early childhood is marked by a focus on the concrete world. That is, until the ages of 11 to 15 when children begin development of abstract reasoning. It turns out that the environment children experience during this period–including national and global events and trends, parents’ views, religion, race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and many other factors–shapes their mental maps. And, it turns out that each generation within a particular country or region tends to have its own lens, which colors assumptions about how the world works. Understanding these generational differences helps us realize that it is logical and legitimate for people to have a very different perspective on common workplace events.

The following are characteristics of the different generations in the United States:

  • Traditionalists (born 1928-1945) entered their formal operational stage in a post-war world of opportunity and possibility. They tend to be joiners, loyal to institutions, accepting of hierarchy and rules, respectful of positional authority, and interested in money as a metric of success. There aren’t many traditionalists left in the workplace, but they probably shaped many of the practices you are still following.
  • Boomers (born 1946-1960) were 11 to 15 years old during a time of protest and experienced the assassination of idealistic leaders such as JFK and MLK. The world was a place they weren’t ready to jump into wholeheartedly as is, but they wanted to change it. And there were so many of them. They tend to be competitive (viewing the world as a zero-sum game), hard-working and driven, anti-authoritarian, and idealistic.
  • Generation X (born 1961-1979) saw the social contract between workers and companies begin to shift with companies starting to lay people off. The Challenger explosion also had a tremendous impact. Xers tend to be self-reliant, mistrustful of institutions, rule-morphing, tribal, and dedicated parents.
  • Generation Y (born 1980-1995) saw 9/11, Columbine, and other terrorism (random things happening to random people). They are also unconscious learners of technology–it was always part of their lives. Unlike the conscious technology learners of previous generations who apply technology to things they already know how to do, unconscious learners apply it to new things. They tend to be immediate and eager to live each and every day to the fullest, confident and determined, optimistic and upbeat, digital natives, tolerant, and family-centric.
  • Re-Generation (born after 1995) are shaped by the experiences from 2008 on. Early impressions include ubiquitous access to information, frugality, pragmatism, trade-offs and compromise, and commitment to make a difference.

The Generation Gap Exists

These differences help us understand why those we work with might have a different reaction from what we expect. Take the word “feedback,” for example. Boomers are not that keen on feedback. To Gen X, it means someone in authority will judge them. But Gen Y comes in begging for feedback–they’re looking for you to teach and mentor them. When someone says something, it’s important to put it in the context of where they are coming from. But this can be a challenge, and not everyone has the same level of tolerance for generational differences. There are three levels:

  1. Having diverse individuals, but expecting them to conform to “our” norms
  2. Recognizing diverse preferences and developing customized approaches
  3. Appreciating the fundamental legitimacy and benefits of alternate views

What level is your organization at?

Do you recognize any of these generational differences in your workplace? Are they understood or do they create friction? Do you think more formal training on this subject would be valuable in your organization? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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