Friday, April 30, 2010

Generational Differences Are Overstated

As a frequent trainer, speaker, and blogger, I try to stay attuned to what issues and concerns are of greatest interest to my target audience--A/E firm managers. Business development, of course, is a hot topic lately. Technical matters have always been. Human resources not so much--with one exception being the differences between generations.

There seems to be a fascination with the subject. I suppose in large part it's because many baby boomer managers are perplexed, even frustrated, with the differences they encounter with the younger generations. So they hire trainers, attend conference sessions, and read articles about how to better understand Gen Xers and Millennials and learn to punch the right buttons to draw out their best efforts. Among the things these managers might learn are:
  • Boomers are more loyal to their companies
  • Work-life balance is more important to Gen Xers
  • Boomers are more optimistic
  • Millennials value change and innovation
  • Boomers are more risk averse
  • Gen Xers don't work as hard

The problem with such characterizations is that they are not very accurate. Just among the people you and I know, we could name many exceptions to these stereotypes. Plus there is a growing body of research that is finding that the differences between generations are not as significant as we've been told.

For example, one study of Gen Xers found that 85% of them really cared about their companies, and almost half would be happy to spend their entire careers there. But aren't they known for their frequent job hopping? Interestingly, 75% of Gen Xers reported that they left their jobs for advancement opportunities, 72% for increased compensation. Aren't those the same reasons the average boomer would change jobs?

True, Gen Xers do put more emphasis on their family and personal life. But the research does not support the notion that work is not important to them. Perhaps we boomers could learn something from the younger generation about priorities. (By the way, other studies indicate that better work-life balance increases productivity on the job.)

That's not to say that there aren't meaningful differences between generations. But what the studies are concluding is that those differences are more a factor of age and position than when one was born. In other words, as Gen Xers grow older and assume more responsible positions in their companies, the differences between them and boomers become much smaller. We don't need research to prove this point, do we? Haven't your attitudes and motivations changed over time?

One of the more interesting studies of the generations is one conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership. Among their findings:

  • All generations of working age essentially want the same things from their jobs: To trust their supervisors, to be paid well, to have interesting work, to get feedback, and to have the opportunity to learn.

  • The number of hours one puts in at work depends more on his or her position than age.

  • Older workers are not really more resistant to change than younger ones.

  • All generations are generally equally trusting, but those in upper management responded significantly differently (in either direction, depending on the specific measure).

There are, of course, tremendous benefits in recognizing (and appreciating) the differences among people. There are different personalities, different backgrounds, different skills, different generations. All these contribute to the wonderful diversity that constitutes one of the primary strengths of your firm. But it can be a challenge trying to match your interpersonal or leadership style with the multiple personas you work with.

That's why we're prone to look for shortcuts. If we could only fit people into ready-made categories, then learn how to deal with each category, wouldn't that make leadership simpler? Simpler perhaps. But not more effective.

That's the trouble with over-playing generational differences. Or personality typing schemes, for that matter. When we attempt to understand and lead others based more on their category than their individual attributes, we've reduced leadership to paint-by-the-numbers. It misses the personal nuance that real leadership requires.

So embrace those positive qualities that each generation brings to the firm. Understand the differences that might present some challenges. But don't neglect getting to know who your colleagues really are as individuals.

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