Many of today’s leaders have said that the largest challenge they face is engaging their millennial staffers. How do you help a generation of workers who have entered an environment characterized by constant change, uncertainty, and a shift from specialization of labor to knowledge work?
Most leaders are looking for the answer to that question in the wrong place. The processes of the Industrial Age will never fix the problems we’re facing in the Digital Age. Essentially, the conventional wisdom of the past has led to more confusion than clarity.
Developing the next generation of leaders is not about solely engaging the millennial population. It’s about engaging entire organizations. There is no way to bridge the generational gap, ease generational myopia, or generate high-performing teams without preparing all members of the team for leadership moments.
The fallacy of generational thinking
Generational conflict can result in a dysfunctional workplace and resentment between individuals. The perfect example of this dysfunction was presented during a discussion between managers at all levels.
In a conversation between a Baby Boomer and Millennial manager, the Baby Boomer was lamenting that her younger report often challenged her thinking, “She kept asking why I do it that way, or why I wouldn’t consider another way. I just needed her to do it the way I asked. It felt really disrespectful to have her constantly questioning my judgement”.
The young Millennial leader spoke up, “I totally get where she is coming from. If I knew how you arrived at that decision, then I [could] learn and organize myself around to meeting what needs to happen”.
The aha moment for both of them was reconciling the two ways they perceived the situation. The Millennial was taught to question, to probe and ask for more understanding. The Baby Boomer was taught not to question authority. The fact that probing questions were on some level perceived as disrespectful did not even cross the Millennial’s mind – that was not her educational experience.
The fallacy of generational thinking stems from
- Baby Boomers who pioneered the 70-hour work week. They expect and will push everyone to want to work more than 70 hours a week
- Many Gen X-ers were latchkey kids, therefore leaders don’t need to engage as closely because they will figure things out on their own
- Millennials born in the digital age. They have grown up with technology and move fast, questioning everything
Shifting our thinking
We need to re-frame the idea that problems are caused or solved by millennials. They are simply the canary in the coal mine. More accurately, millennials are simply representatives of the evolution of the workplace.
Many organizations try to ease the generational gap by addressing generational diversity and communication, focusing first on Boomers, then on Millennials, and so on. The issue with this approach is that it does not foster an understanding between the two, but rather keeps them pigeon-holed in their own generation.
What we need to do is shift our thinking…
Empower your team
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