For the first time in history, four generations (Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials) are working alongside one another, each completely different from the others. Each new generation brings about change, and if an organization wants to survive, it cannot fight that change. Instead, it must find ways of mixing the old with the new. Generational differences have the ability to tear teams apart, but in Sticking Points, Haydn Shaw provides a practical resource for working through these differences.
Traditionalists are a shrinking but important generation. Some are still in the workplace (mostly in leadership positions), and members of this generation built many of today’s organizations and trained the Baby Boomers.
To understand Traditionalists, it is important to understand how The Great Depression, World War II, and the transition from farm to city life influenced them. With little government assistance, millions of people were barely able to feed their families during the Great Depression. This left an entire generation cautious and thrifty. World War II united the country and taught Traditionalists not to complain and to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
When it came time to form companies, Traditionalists formed them in the same hierarchical style as the military, since many were soldiers during WWII. Traditionalists learned their strong work ethic from farm life–if they wanted breakfast, they had to go out, milk the cows, and collect the eggs.
Baby Boomers are named after the population boom following WWII. They were taught from a young age that they were special, and they grew up believing anything was possible as long as they worked hard. This generation was shaped by overcrowding, a booming economy, growing up in the suburbs, and the invention of television.
Baby Boomers grew up in an age of overcrowding, which made workaholics out of them. The world was not prepared for the population boom, and since it was not expected to last, hospitals, schools, and colleges were not ready for the vast size of this generation. Boomers have had to compete their entire lives for spots in school, college, and the job market. Baby Boomers learned at a young age that if they did not put in the effort, somebody else would.
Unlike their parents, Boomers did not have to worry about survival and saving money as they grew up. They were the first generation to experience growing up in the suburbs rather than on farms. On farms, teens spent most of their time around family, but in the suburbs Baby Boomers went off to school and spent the majority of their time with their peers.
Television also had a unique effect on Baby Boomers because everyone watched the same few channels and were connected by the same language.
Generation Xers are the realists squished between the larger Baby Boomer and Millennial generations. They were the first to really experience high divorce rates and a change in family structure.
Since the Baby Boomer generation was so large, Gen Xers had little hope of moving up the corporate ladder quickly. Often, this forced Gen Xers to switch companies frequently in order to be successful. Divorce rates also began to rise, creating a new family structure for Gen Xers to deal with. Often feeling lonely, Gen Xers created their own support networks and families out of friends.
Gen Xers missed the expansive growth of the economy, but they were still left to deal with rising prices. They also had to face quadrupling college expenses, leaving them in debt before they ever got started in their careers.
Millennials are the newest and least understood generation. Unlike previous generations, Millennials have had heavily involved parents. This is also the generation in which a person becomes an adult around the age of 26. It takes them longer to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and many graduate college with student loan debt in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Individuals from this generation have also had more freedom to disagree with their parents and express their feelings. Parents, teachers, and coaches have stressed that Millennials are special, which has created an “everyone gets a trophy” mind-set. Millennials are also consumers surrounded by technology.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had a profound effect on Millennials, and it taught them that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Because of this, Millennials volunteer more than any other generation, and they strive for work-life balance.
STICKING TOGETHER OR COMING APART
A great analogy for understanding generational differences is to think of each generation as a different country with its own norms, customs, language, and clothing. Understanding the culture of the country (generation) is paramount.
When it comes to mixing the four generations, there are four approaches an organization can take:
- It can ignore generational differences.
- It can try to minimize the differences.
- It can cut deals with employees from different generations.
- It can lead and create a cohesive team with all generations.
The first three approaches use management as a tool, but Boomers were the last generation to respond well to being managed; both Gen Xers and Millennials respond better to leadership.
Individuals from different generations do not see things the same way, and while they have similar needs, each group meets those needs differently. Currently, Baby Boomers fill most of the top leadership positions in organizations and make up a large portion of companies’ talent pools. However, as Boomers near retirement (Traditionalists have mostly left the workforce), organizations need to start looking at who will succeed them.
FIVE STEPS FOR LEADING THROUGH THE TWELVE GENERATIONAL STICKING POINTS
There are 12 areas where multigenerational teams tend to get stuck:
- Decision making.
- Dress code.
- Fun at work.
- Knowledge transfer.
- Work ethic.
Each of these areas can either pose a problem or be an opportunity, depending on how the team looks at it. Differences in these areas can lead to understanding and make a team stronger, or they can lead to conflict and be the reason a team falls apart.
It is not enough to simply know what the 12 sticking points are; leaders need to know how to deal with them and keep organizations and teams from getting stuck and coming apart. There are five steps leaders can follow to move a team past a sticking point:
- Acknowledge that there are differences and bring them out into the open.
- Appreciate the differences in each generation by focusing on why things are different.
- Be flexible on policies that are not based on business necessities.
- Leverage the strengths of each generation.
- Resolve conflicts by making decisions that make the most sense.
THE STICKING POINTS
The main goal of communication is to understand what other people are trying to say. It becomes a sticking point when that understanding does not occur, and the why behind a preferred communication method is not understood.
Traditionalists prefer communicating via memos and letters, and they like holding meetings to disseminate information. They grew up in a time when print and radio were commonplace, and in school they were taught formal writing. Communication for them means face-to-face contact. Baby Boomers were also taught formal writing in school, but everybody from that generation had access to a phone. They prefer writing memos, using the phone, or holding meetings. Gen Xers grew up learning to embrace new technology like e-mail and cell phones, so they prefer to communicate by e-mail or virtual meetings. Millennials grew up with interactive technology. To them, sending a text message is more efficient than calling, and social media is second nature.
There are strengths and weakness to each method, but communication should always match the customer’s preference. All generations have to show some flexibility in order to find common ground. When flexibility is not enough, policies are needed to dictate what communication styles should be employed.
Companies make decisions in six primary ways:
- All decisions are made and announced by the boss.
- The most tenured employees are asked for their input, and then the boss decides.
- All employees are asked for their input, and then the boss decides.
- A few employees meet with the boss and come to a decision.
- Whoever is the most knowledgeable on the topic decides.
- A decision is made after the entire team discusses the issue.
Most teams get stuck using just one or two of these decision-making structures instead of utilizing whichever one is most appropriate at the time. The best way to resolve a conflict when decision making becomes a sticking point is to be flexible on which approach is used and decide which approach works best for the decision at hand.
Based on their time in the military, Traditionalists prefer a hierarchical style of decision making where the boss makes the decisions and is not questioned. Baby Boomers push for a voice by using surveys and discussions, but ultimately leave the final decision to the boss. Gen Xers get help where they need it, so they believe decisions should be made by the individual with the most knowledge on the subject. Millennials have been taught to use peer resolution, so they believe in an all-inclusive process where decisions are made by consensus.
Out of all of the sticking points, dress code can be the most difficult to discuss because it is not only extremely personal, but each generation has its own ideas about what attire is professional and appropriate.
Traditionalists grew up on farms and had separate dress clothes. They believe wearing formal attire shows respect. Baby Boomers were hired by Traditionalists, so they learned to dress formally at work. However, they opt for a more casual style of dress outside of work. Gen Xers grew up with casual attire and often prefer a more casual approach to clothing in the workplace; however, because they are outnumbered by Baby Boomers, they usually do not put the effort into changing dress policies. Millennials focus more on what a person contributes than what he or she wears, so they do not see the value of dress codes.
The best way to come to an agreement over dress code is to focus on what is a business necessity rather than a generational preference. Older generations can help younger individuals understand why dressing more formally is important, and younger generations can help keep their companies more relaxed and accepting of people’s appearances.
Feedback is one the easier sticking points to get around because everyone wants to know how they are doing and how they can improve. The sticking point centers on how much feedback is enough.
Traditionalists learned in the military that if something is wrong, they will hear about it; otherwise, they should just keep doing what they have been doing. They have this same mentality in the workplace. Baby Boomers had a lot of competition for jobs and promotions, so they worked with Traditionalists to secure annual reviews and quarterly meetings. Gen Xers had much less competition to deal with than Baby Boomers and, as a result, prefer to get real-time feedback. Many of them see annual reviews as a waste of time. Millennials grew up receiving feedback all the time, and they want to know exactly how they are doing at all times.
A great way for employees to receive feedback and take pressure off of managers is to ask their peers for feedback. In order to keep the younger generations involved, feedback has to focus on career planning. Mutually beneficial mentoring programs should be implemented.
Fun at Work
Traditionalists grew up with the idea that fun happens after the work is done, and Baby Boomers grew up in a time of excitement when work was already fun. Gen Xers are realists and see work as just work and nothing else. Millennials value fun at work more than any other generation, and because companies are trying to attract more Millennials, they need to learn how to make their workplaces more fun.
All generations want to have fun, but the sticking point comes in determining how much fun is appropriate in the workplace. Because Gen Xers and Millennials are the future, making work fun is a business necessity if companies want these employees to stay.
With Traditionalists and Baby Boomers retiring in the coming years, knowledge transfer is extremely important. Traditionalists and Baby Boomers learn through a hands-on approach and transfer knowledge through watching and talking. Gen Xers learn by listening to previous generations and posing questions to peers. They typically use documentation to transfer their own knowledge. Millennials grew up watching videos and using message boards to post questions. They typically prefer on-demand learning over traditional coursework.
Instead of trying to get the older generations to write down what they know, the better option is to get them to record it on video. The videos can then be edited for length or transcribed. Older and younger employees can also be put on teams together to help make knowledge transfer a more natural process.
Loyalty is viewed very differently between generations. For Traditionalists, changing jobs too many times would get them blacklisted, so they preferred to stay with one company and move up the ladder. Baby Boomers preferred to stay at a single company and work their way up the corporate ladder as well, even though leaving would not get them blacklisted. Gen Xers, on the other hand, were forced to job hop between companies if they wanted to get ahead. Millennials typically stay with an organization as long as they are not bored, but they see nothing wrong with changing jobs or organizations until they find jobs they love.
Traditionalists and Baby Boomers were loyal to their companies because there was a defined corporate ladder for them to move up, but that is no longer the case for Gen Xers and Millennials. Gen Xers and Millennials will only stay with a company as long as their needs are being met.
Meetings can be a sticking point for the generations because they do not all agree on when a meeting is needed, how long it should be, and what should be discussed.
Traditionalists did not attend meetings all that often because their bosses made all the decisions. However, when there was a meeting, they made sure to pay attention to what the boss was saying. When Baby Boomers came along, they pushed for meetings as a way to even the playing field by making it possible for everyone to have access to information. They were expected to always show up and pay attention. Gen Xers and Millennials do not value meetings the same way Baby Boomers do, and this is where a lot of the friction occurs. Gen Xers feel that most of their work and communication can be done through e-mail. However, when that is not enough, they do see the value in having a meeting. They also want to have the freedom to respond to e-mail and work on other things during the parts of the meeting that do not apply to them. Millennials grew up with teams, so they do not mind meetings, as long as they are allowed to use their phones, laptops, and tablets to stay connected.
Each generation brings something to the table. Traditionalists are stable, Boomers remind everyone about the importance of face-to-face communication, Gen Xers keep everyone on point, and Millennials make meetings fun. In order to move past this sticking point, it is important to use everyone’s strengths to make meetings better.
Policies are important because they resolve sticking points and outline what behavior is acceptable and why. The problem is that with four generations in a single workplace, the top-down approach to policymaking is no longer functional.
Traditionalists believe in doing what they are told to do, and Baby Boomers like creating policies to keep everything fair. However, Gen Xers feel that rules were meant to be broken, and Millennials see rules as mere guidelines.
The best way to get the four generations to agree on policies is to include them in the process. Companies should put together teams of representatives from each generation, educate them on business challenges, and then let them work out the details on policies. This way, each generation gets heard and does not feel left out.
Respect is a foundational sticking point that has the ability to make other sticking points more difficult to work through if it is not already understood.
Traditionalists come from hierarchal families, and they participated in WWII. Because of this, they like to familiarize themselves with the corporate hierarchy and then find their place in it. Employees should automatically respect those above them on the ladder. Baby Boomers believe in working their way up the ladder to a position that will give them the respect of their peers and direct reports. Gen Xers do not respect people just because they are in certain roles; instead, they respect those who consistently deliver results. Millennials were taught to respect everyone, and they expect everyone else to respect them in return.
To get around this sticking point, each generation has to be flexible and understand how the other generations view respect. They also need to learn not to take things personally. Lastly, being approachable goes a long way toward getting along with older and younger individuals.
Every generation wants additional training, and it is important for them to learn new things so they can sharpen their skills and keep from getting bored. However, each generation learns in different ways, and it is challenging to find a training program that meets every generation’s needs.
Traditionalists grew up learning from libraries, newspapers, and colleges, so they still prefer to learn through reading or lectures. Baby Boomers learned to sit still in school and pay attention to teachers, and when they moved into the workforce, training was a reward for those who had good futures ahead of them. Gen Xers value staying current and feel that without being trained, their job security is being taken from them. They learn through the Internet and want their training to be fast-paced and practical. Millennials know that without consistent training they have no futures. They prefer to work in groups and constantly want interaction and movement.
To make sure every generation gets something out of training, companies should use as many different approaches as possible and let employees decide which method works best for them. Even more progress can be made if time is taken to ask each generation what it wants.
Among all the sticking points, work ethic generates the most tension. Everyone wants fairness and does not want to do more than anyone else.
Traditionalists were accustomed to working hard on the farms, but when they transitioned into industrial jobs, they fought for five-day workweeks and 9-to-5 days with paid overtime. Baby Boomers had a lot of competition in their generation, so they were willing to work longer hours and take work home when needed. Gen Xers take work home as well, but only if they absolutely have to, and since they know that they will have to work extra on occasion, they think it is only right that they should be able to make personal calls at work. Millennials do not hold steady to rigid work hours. Because they are always connected, Millennials do not believe all 8 hours of work need to be done consecutively. Instead, they prefer taking breaks during the workday, even though that may mean staying later at the office. Millennials are reshaping the playing field. It is best for companies to focus on output rather than the number of hours worked, and if employees are not meeting their goals, they need to be held accountable.