Bridging the Generational Divide Starts With You

When it comes to motivating different generations, today’s workplace couldn’t be more different than the one in which many of us grew up. If you are like me, you came up in a certain type of environment. First in last out. Work harder. If you’re not first, you’re last.

We survived it, so why can’t they?

That’s just the thing. I now know I deserve more than surviving. I want to thrive. So how do you go about creating this reset for yourself, and deciding how you want to lead from this moment onward?

You’re not wrong (or right)

When it comes to these types of generational divides, I think it’s important not to treat any perspective as right or wrong - instead, think of it as something that just IS. Every generation has a complex history behind their values and perspectives (here’s a fascinating chart if you’d like to dig in more). The question is - what do you want to do with it? How do you want to lead as opposed to how you learned to lead or what you were told to do? You’re in a position where you have the autonomy and authority TO CHOOSE. 

But before we even get into what other generations believe, want, and do, let’s start with you.

Acknowledge and investigate

What do you really think? How do you really feel? Even if it is something you would be embarrassed to say out loud, it is important to express it. For example, you may think no one works as hard as you. You may be coming to terms with all the personal sacrifices you have made, as you watch others make far less. You may be angry, frustrated, exacerbated, or even jealous.

All of your thoughts and feelings are ok. And, if you’d like to have different thoughts and feelings someday, the first step is honesty about what is really going on inside your head right now.

When you feel you have been able to honestly articulate your thoughts and feelings, then you can start to investigate. Ask yourself “why.” What is the evidence or experience behind your beliefs? What makes you think that? Why might you feel the way you do?

Imagine the future

It’s not just “out with the old, in with the new.” Your future leadership style is the combination of your very best self - all of your wisdom, experience, and strengths - and the new perspectives and skills you want to learn and integrate. But first, it’s important to explore whether you actually want to change anything about your style. You can do this by exploring the reasons you may want to shift.

As always, your personal reasons are the most powerful. Intrinsic motivation is more sustainable than extrinsic motivation. For example, if you want to change because you have received feedback that you need to do so, or because you have read a lot of articles explaining why your style is insufficient for todays’ workforce, that may not be sufficient motivation to produce real transformation.

Go deeper. Feedback, or reading articles, may be a starting point. But ultimately it is up to you to decide if you want to change, why, and what it will mean for you.

Managing the day-to-day

The other side of the equation is how you manage the day-to-day of multiple generations in the workplace (and represented in your clientele!). I have seen overwhelmed leaders take one of two approaches: One is to shut down all feedback and ideas that differ from their own beliefs. The other is to over-accommodate.

It’s probably easier to see why the first approach is unproductive overall. The one benefit of the “one way of thinking” approach is that it’s very clear exactly what is expected, and this is attractive and may even make some employees feel safe. However, it is also a sure path to failure, ultimately, because firms that do not innovate ultimately become too disconnected from their people and the marketplace to endure.

The second approach is also unproductive, although on its face it may seem kind. Leaders who deal with generational differences by over-accommodating try to make everyone happy without regard to their own experience, company strategy, or the underlying reasons behind employee requests. This results in a work environment where people may get immediate gratification from being acknowledged, but the culture as a whole is unclear and constantly shifting.

So, what can you do to walk a more productive path? Get curious. If someone is unhappy, find out why. If someone is asking for something, ask questions to learn more about the request. I once had an employee asking for a career path that seemed totally out of alignment with her strengths and experience. I could have just forced a way to give her what she was asking for. But by asking more questions, I learned that she was asking for that because it was the only clear path we currently had available. She wanted clarity and opportunity, not the role.

For many people, simply getting your genuine interest and curiosity is enough. So, if nothing else, start with listening. Challenge yourself to ask questions, suspend assumptions, and respond very little during the conversation. You may be surprised to find yourself considering changes you previously would not have made. Ultimately, whatever you decide to do must be in alignment with your business strategy and your gut. That is not to say you won’t make changes that push you out of your comfort zone, but once you’ve started doing the real personal work and seeking to understand others, you can trust your instincts.

Don’t be afraid

Fear is not the feeling many people would name when thinking about generational differences, but I often find that it is at the heart of a lot of these issues. People are afraid no one understands them, afraid of losing what they have worked so hard to build, afraid their contribution won’t matter, afraid that rising generations will make the same mistakes they made. If you can start with some courage and empathy, you are taking the first step to an immensely rewarding leadership journey. It’s not easy, but it’s completely doable and will be extremely valuable to your business in the end.

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