Leadership challenge: Ignore the generational divide and bury ageism

by Catherine Rickwood

leadership

Highlighting and even promoting the differences between generations is common sport. This tendency creates great headlines and fuels lively debates. And, whilst Simon Sinek’s commentary on ‘Millennials in the Workplace’ is amusing or perhaps even fun, the truth is, in the workplace, we’re more alike than different. The challenge for leadership is to ignore the rhetoric and create an environment that meets our core needs – needs that transcend age.

The Truth

A 2012 scientific study from researchers at The George Washington University reviewed 20 studies involving 19,961 individuals across four generations. The result of this comprehensive analysis found that there is:

“… no support for systematic, substantive differences among generations in work-related outcomes.”

In fact this same study suggests that there is:

“… little evidence supporting the existence of significant and meaningful differences that are attributable to generation membership.”

What does this mean for leaders managing multigenerational teams? After all, we’ve been told for years that the generational differences makes it difficult for managers to manage. And how often do we see eyes roll – either figuratively or in reality – when talking about millennials at work.

Generational Facts

The truth about generational labelling is that it is used as a proxy for describing a group of people born at a particular period in time when certain historical facts and cultural phenomenons occurred. These are considered to influence a person’s attitudes, values, and personality characteristics.

The problem with generational labelling is that it assumes:

  1. That everyone within a generation is broadly the same.
  2. There are significant differences between people of different ages (other than age itself).
  3. A level of conflict or discord between generations.

Here’s some facts:

  1. Not all millennials have a sense of “entitlement”.
  2. Baby boomers are not all conservative and technology-illiterate.
  3. Millennials are not all unreliable and disloyal.
  4. Many baby boomers don’t want to retire.
  5. Baby boomers are often:
    • Keen to remain employed;
    • Seeking less demanding roles; and
    • Keen to pass on their knowledge in order for those younger than them to succeed (for more on this idea see Chip Conley’s great book on Wisdom at Work).

In reality, many characteristics attributed to a generation are likely to be a function of a stage of life rather than a generational fact.

Core Needs in the Workplace

A survey by Harvard Business Review in 2013 revealed that people feel better and perform better when these four core needs are met:

  1. Renewal (physical): ie. the ability to rest and renew our energy throughout the day.
  2. Value (emotional): i.e. Imagine if your work wasn’t appreciated or your efforts weren’t noticed. Feeling valued is a core need for us all.
  3. Focus (mental): In a world of instant messaging, social media, and constant connectivity, having focus is essential to being able to get more work done.
  4. Purpose (spiritual): Knowing that the work we do contributes to a higher purpose – something greater than ourselves – is highly motivating. For everyone.

 

Back to Simon Sinek.

Sinek claims that millennials seek purpose and impact. Who doesn’t?

Singling millennials out as unique misses the opportunity to harness the collective energy, enthusiasm, and motivation of all generations. Challenging the stereotypes associated with generational labels creates the foundation for co-designing workplaces that provide everyone with purpose and the chance to make an impact.

Leadership

What does this mean for leaders?

Generational labels in the workplace inhibit HR policies and practices, from recruitment through to training and retention practices. What can leaders do?

  1. Inform. Starting conversations and sharing insights on the changing landscape of becoming older is an essential first step to creating change.
  2. Invite input. Invariably, once people have insights they become aware and “see” the age stereotypes and ageism within themselves and the workplace. 
  3. Innovate & change. Encouraging and empowering people to develop and lead an intergenerational workplace strategy that harnesses the strengths of workers of all ages has a greater likelihood of success.

Most importantly, take small steps. Demonstrate the effectiveness of an intergenerational workforce strategy within a department or division before seeking to implement large scale change.

About the Author

Catherine Rickwood

An experienced researcher and business executive, Catherine's work is informed by academic knowledge and evidence to deliver practical actions with measurable outcomes. These combined skills create a powerful and useful ability to delve deep on issues, ask incisive questions, think laterally, and bring knowledge and insights to individuals, a team, and an organisation keen to engage with, and include the over 50's as a valuable part of their business strategy.



Catherine Rickwood is solutions-focussed, working with innovative organisations keen to improve customer and employee insights and empathy to increase their success in new markets, build loyalty, and increase innovation. She does this using a co-design process that engages employees and key stakeholders to create collaborative solutions. Contact Catherine to discover how her services can support your organisation to harness the changing demographic reality.

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