By Jonas Bladt Hansen, 26. November 2018
Lots of books, blogs and articles have been written about leading generations. Reading descriptions about the different traits about generations is a great way to get a broad understanding of their needs and wants.
But as a leader, your focus should first and foremost be on leading people and not generations. It’s still about human-to-human interactions and not “Gen X to Gen Y” or similar. You must be careful not to expect specific behaviors just because one of your employees belong to a specific generation. It might come as a surprise, but there are not great differences of what the different generations WANT to achieve at work. However, there might be differences in HOW they want to achieve it.
In this blogpost I will look into
- What really defines generational traits/behaviors
- How technology has impacted generations
- Three things to focus on when leading different generations at work
How I got it wrong
Descriptions of generations can give you insights into behavioral traits and what might be expected of you. However, you can’t solely rely on them. You need to give them a reality check – as I learned the hard way:
A couple of years ago, when I was leading Arla’s internal communication department, I was asked to give a presentation about how we worked with this at the Copenhagen Business School. I was excited to speak at my former school and to present in front of Generation Y. I expected that they would embrace the flexible workplace and decided to tell them about all the great new digital channels we implemented at that time. I also told them about things happening in the near future and how that would enable us to offer great work experiences.
To my surprise, many of the questions I received after my presentation were focused around data privacy and a healthy work-life balance.
I must admit that I was a bit surprised. I thought this generation who grew up during the rise of Social Media would not really care about data privacy and prefer a flexible over work-life balance. On that day, I experienced how wrong one can get by making assumptions based on general definitions of generations.
This experience, and my experience in leading younger generations at work, has made me very cautious of expecting certain kinds of behaviors from generations.
“It’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older.”
– Elspeth Reeve, The Atlantic
As Elspeth Reeves indicates, there are different effects that define people’s traits and sometimes these get mixed up. Baby Boomers were called the “Me” generation when they were young. The same label is being used to describe Millennials today!
What really defines generational traits/behaviors
Let’s take a look at three effects that often get mixed up when speaking about generations – age, cohort, and periodic. If you mix them up, you could make wrong assumptions about people. As a result, you could recruit the wrong people, design the wrong workplace experiences, promote the wrong person or set the wrong expectations towards your employees.
These traits increase or decline during your period of life and they are not specifically linked to the time you grew up in. For instance, younger people are less likely to vote and engage in politics compared to older people. This is not a generational issue, but an age issue.
In 2003 a very comprehensive study concluded that traits such as contentiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extraversion changed during a life-time. Contentiousness (discipline and ability to organize) and agreeableness (warmth, generous, helpful) increased over time. Openness declines over time which indicates that older people might prefer to spend time with people they know, while younger people a more open to establish new friendships.
These are the effects that lead to generational thinking and acting.
A cohort effect can be a by-product of a historical event that has taken place and that has shaped the thinking of a whole generation. Growing up during World War 2, The Great Depression – or in freedom and prosperity during the 1990’s – has shaped people’s thinking in different ways.
The time you grow up in is also impacting your use of technology. People tend to stick with the defining technology of their time. For baby boomers, the phone was their defining communication technology. This means that they prefer phone conversations more than younger generations. The younger generations grew up with Social Media and chats and prefer them instead.
Even if there would be better communication channels available in the future, these generations would be more likely to stick with their “defining technology” and become the laggards when new platforms emerge – just as baby boomers are on Facebook at the moment.
These effects are circumstances that affect everyone simultaneously. For instance, the 9/11 attack has changed people’s view on what our intelligence services should be allowed to do in order to prevent attacks – across generations.
To sum up, it is important to distinguish between:
- age effects that will change over time
- period effects that affect all generations
- cohort effects that shapes the thinking of predominantly one generation