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Putting Aside Generational Differences: The Importance of Leadership in Business

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Collaborative leadership is becoming ever more important in the professional business world where generational differences need to be put aside to be able to effectively work together and gain competitive advantages. The modern workplace now consists of four different generations, soon to be five, for the first time in history. Each categorical generation, Traditionalists [1924-1947], Baby Boomers [1948-1964], Generation X [1965-1979], Generation Y [1980-1994], and Generation Z [1995-2012] are empirically separated by their date of birth, however, the association of each is more complex than one’s year of birth. Each generation brings vastly different sets of values, beliefs, and expectations as they have been heavily influenced by the events of their time; creating a new challenge for employers whose main goal is to effectively manage a large group of people towards a common goal. The end goal being increased productivity and revenue for the organization, through an environment and work process that its employees find fulfilling.

Through the theories of professor Keith Grint’s, as outlined in Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, as well as Katherine Hawley’s revelations outlined in Trust: A Very Short Introduction, business professionals can turn generational differences in the workplace into competitive advantages. Grint defines an effective leader as somebody who is able to “engage a group or community into facing its wicked problems” (Grint p. 135). Wicked problems are those that do not have a standardized solution, but rather require a custom, innovative, and often ‘clumsy’ solution. Generational differences are well documented, however, the manner in which they develop is often unpredictable. Solutions to these problems can only be found through collaborative effort by the organization in which these differences are occurring. This form of collaborative effort can only arise in groups where supervisors have established trustworthiness and the employees have decided to trust. As Hawley puts it, “being trusted is a precondition for all sorts of rewarding pursuits, and it is difficult to get much done in situations where others do not trust what you say” (Hawley, p. 112). The application of the principles and studies presented by Grint and Hawley are therefore imperative to the success of turning generational differences into competitive advantages in the workplace. Before these principles can be applied, however, it is critical to first understand not only what these differences are but why these differences exist in the current landscape of companies today. This better understanding will allow for not only better responses but may even allow for future prevention of such wicked problems. Historically, the United States has been a manufacturing-oriented economy in which the organizational hierarchies were appropriated by different generations to different tasks. Senior [older] employees, who were mostly white and male, worked in the head office or were in command positions in the manufacturing chain. Middle-aged employees tended to be in the middle management or high-skill, senior protected trade jobs.

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The youngest, greenest, and physically strongest were on the factory floor (Zemke 2). This hierarchy of management worked for many years as the rate of technological improvement and employee retirement was not outpacing the demand. Today, this hierarchy is still very much ingrained in corporations; traditionalists and baby boomers are by far the majority of executives and senior managers who control the power, culture, and direction of the organizations they are a part of. The difference, however, is that these generations are now expected to work side by side. As with any collective group each generation has strengths, but also possesses shortcomings as well. Due to their experiences traditionalists and baby boomers often retain much of the corporate memory, they understand the ins and outs of the organization, who can get you ahead, and who to avoid. They are competitive and were raised with great expectations for success. However, their adaptation, understanding, and implementation of technology are often poor. After all, their defining technology was television, the invention of the portable phone, and the mainframe computer. This recognizable shortcoming gives opportunity and needs for a younger workforce who can navigate, understand, and use these technological advancements efficiently and effectively. Psychological studies have been conducted over the past eighty years and when viewed as an aggregate, psychologists have found “steady, linear change rather than cycles or sudden generational shifts.

Change in cultures occurs gradually and takes time to appear as generational differences in individuals’ personality traits and attitudes” (Twenge). As a collective, generation X and particularly generation Y have seen an increase in self-esteem and an overall narcissistic attitude towards their professional work practices. By the mid-1990s, the average “Generation Me” college man had higher self-esteem than 86 percent of college men in 1968. The average mid-1990s college woman had higher self-esteem than 71 percent of Boomer college women (Twenge). This trend promotes an individualistic approach providing an environment where a “win at all costs” mentality is often commonplace. To an extent this can provide benefits to companies, however, if left unchecked, this attitude can lead towards ethical scandals and give way towards a narcissistic culture in the workplace. As result, when discussing leadership practices, ethical standards that have led to the well-being of a company, its employees, and customers must not be thrown to the way side and forgotten about. It is the job of collaborative leaders and followers to bridge these gaps, in an ethical manner that effectively integrates the younger workforce, into the organization. This overall need for a younger workforce has been reflected in the changing landscape of American businesses, the lines between once distinctly separate job descriptions have been blurred. This is ultimately leading to “The 2020 workplace: An organizational environment that provides an intensely personalized, social experience to attract, develop, and engage employees across all generations” (Meister). This 2020 workplace is the leading edge of the new generation Z entering the workplace.

For companies to gain a competitive advantage they “will do so by instituting innovative human resource practices – by first defining an authentic core set of organizational values and then augmenting these by leveraging the latest tools of the social web to reimagine learning and development, talent management, and leadership practices” (Meister). Sociologists have come to a consensus contributing this to the increased age at which people are normally retiring and the increased competitive advantage companies gain when successfully integrating generational differences. Men and women who are healthy at 60, according to the World Health Organization, will on average be physically capable of working until they are 74 and 77, respectively (Knight). In addition, the financial crisis of 2008, in which many people close to retirement had their savings irreparably harmed, companies have seen a steady drop-off in the percent of baby boomers and traditionalists that would have normally retired. This is ultimately leading to the complex nature of the modern workplace in which leadership practices will be more crucial than ever before. “New technology comes with an owner’s manual, but the generation of new employees does not” (Twenge). Modern companies understand the role that these conditions will play in the future work environment and have come up with many creative solutions to combat this inherent disassociation between the workforce. Employers have created training programs aimed at bringing awareness, emphasized teamwork and teambuilding as a necessary skill in the hiring process, and created situations in which intercompany events have been used to promote bonding between their employees. These solutions are all merely considered workplace adjustments, implemented for the end goal of creating a productive environment for all employees, regardless of their age. Instead of using these mere adjustments, companies must focus on permanently changing company culture through leadership practices in managerial roles. Effective change can only start from the top of the managerial ladder, as it is built on the leader-follower relationship. Strong perceived organizational support is positively linked to organizational commitment and in-role and extra-role performance and negatively related to withdrawal behaviors such as absenteeism and turnover. A recent study found that after managers listened to needs of externals and tried to offer support, externals responded with significant increases in satisfaction and organizational commitment (Chiu). Companies will need to lead and assimilate workers’ generational differences by trust and good faith in order to be able to implement any form of beneficial change. Although it may seem like a monumental task for management to ensure that employees understand and accept the idiosyncrasies of each multi-generational group, it is not an impossible mission. Management must be the first to acknowledge and accept the unique characteristics and expectations of employees from different generational groups. They should also identify the strengths and weaknesses of each generation and adopt judicious measures to accommodate their mixed expectations and perceptions.

These generations have unique work ethics, different perspectives of work quality and service, and preferred ways of managing and being managed. This creates a complex arena in which leadership values must be built upon. Today, over 65% of the US military is comprised of millennials; however, baby boomers are the ones who wield most of the power. Vast amounts of research and time have been committed to minimizing generational differences in the armed forces, as any disagreement or altercation has the potential of being a life and death situation. The United States Marine Corps have made a common practice of routinely placing 22-year-old lieutenants in charge of 45-year-old sergeants. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of Business explains why this works so well: “The mindset is to make that person your partner and involve them in everything you do. You’re still the boss and the one making the decisions, but you should hear them out” (Knight). This type of collaborative approach works well when managing workers who are in their 20s, too. “They are used in discussion and engagement because that’s what they had in the college environment,” Cappelli says.

Help your employees make the transition from school to the workplace by encouraging debate. One doesn’t need to take the advice, however, bringing awareness to where they are coming from is crucial in building trust and managing collaborative relationships. This is the main reason for creating an environment in which one is comfortable and welcomes constructive dissent. As Grint puts it, “what we actually need is constructive dissenters who are willing to tell their boss that his or her decision is wrong” (Grint p. 30). In situations where employees have carried out their duty and worked towards this type of work environment, the challenge of handling future generational differences could make what was once a ‘wicked problem’ look like a ‘tame problem’. Ron Garrow, the Chief Human Resources Officer at MasterCard, is not technically inclined, as he readily admits that social media didn’t come easily to him — at least at first. “I recognized that I had a lot to learn about operating in this new world”. So he agreed to take part in a reciprocal mentoring program run by one of MasterCard’s internal business resource groups. The program partners young employees with older colleagues to work on tech skills. Ron was assigned a coach, a 24-year old avid social media user who taught him how to use Twitter and network professionally over the internet. “Rebecca has shaped my thinking in terms of how I operate in the social space,” says Ron. “I now carve out time in my day to get on LinkedIn and I have a [better appreciation for] the importance of social media. ” Although this may not seem like it has a direct benefit to the business model of Mastercard and its millions of transactional payments, working with a younger colleague helped Ron relate to millennials on a different level. Garrow describes the younger generations as both the consumers and workforce of the future, a critical insight considering the changes taking place in MasterCard’s industry (Knight). The younger employee, through interaction with senior management, was also able to benefit from the relationship, as Garrow now regularly provides professional counsel in developing her communication skills. Today hundreds of MasterCard employees take part in this same program, which is currently offered across many different branches. “There’s a contagion going on — people are raising their hands and saying: ‘I want a mentor. ’ It’s really about making yourself vulnerable,” he says. When operating in an innovative work environment, like MasterCard, trust is essential for the organizations success. This development of trust among employees is therefore an important role of leaders. Trust in leaders is can be described as an intangible asset in which it acts as an essential bonding agent in the leader- follower relationship. Reciprocal mentoring programs, as implemented at MasterCard, which pair younger workers with seasoned executives regarding specific business objectives are becoming more prevalent in the workplace. “The younger person — who grew up with the internet — teaches the older person about the power of social media to drive business results (Meister). Meanwhile, the more experienced employee shares institutional knowledge with the younger worker. Mixed-age work teams are another way to promote cross-generational mentoring. Studies show that colleagues learn more from each other than they do from formal training, which is why it is so important to establish a culture of coaching across age groups (Meister). Generally, mixed-age teams are drawn towards mentoring relationships more naturally. “Older folks are more likely to fall into a mentor role and help the young employees,” he says. Meanwhile, young people often find it easier to take advice from an experienced worker than from one of their peers “because they’re not competing in the same way (Meister). How leaders view generational differences, and how each generation views their leaders can cause problems in the workplace (Zemke). This can manifest itself as a need for different leadership styles, in which the leader follower relationship can be used productively. Different leadership styles are necessary in order to lead in an atmosphere of generational diversity. There is no uniform style of leadership. In effect, successful leaders will need to adapt their leadership styles to meet their subordinates’ needs. Differences in values, attitudes, and beliefs, require leadership styles that are flexible and able to adapt to all of the generational differences (Schewe).

The applied leadership style should include a structure “that emphasizes delegation, an individualist approach that values self-expression for Baby Boomers, an excitement style that makes X’ers feel like change agents, and a team objective that is relevant to millennials values of accomplishing greater societal and corporate goals” (Arsenault p. 129). Companies must understand its unique culture and what changes need to be made in order to manage and bridge generational differences in the workplace. With five generations of employees soon to be in the 2020 workplace, a company culture must be able to promote an environment in which constructive dissent between different age groups is normalized. These generational differences can be interpreted as challenges or opportunities for leaders who want to benefit from the strengths of each generation and to encourage and promote workplace collegiality and support. The way in which companies use Grint’s definition of leadership in order to manage differing expectations, career needs, communication styles, and learning preferences of each generation will determine their future levels of success. The findings from both case studies highlight that trust building starts with relationship building in an organization. To address the challenging task of leading a multigenerational workforce, leaders need to align and enhance their skills suitably in all their communication, behavior and actions, whether interacting with individuals or with the whole multigenerational employee group. It is important to build and sustain trust as diverse values and perceptions become intertwined at the workplace.


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