June 2013
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Breaking Through Generational Stereotypes

Saturday, June 8, 2013
Breaking Through Generational Stereotypes

Managing a team comprised of Boomers and Millennials doesn't have to be a struggle.

There are three groups receiving far too much ink: Generation X (born between 1965 and 1981), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), and Generation Y or the Millennials (born between 1982 and 2004).

Although taboos and political-correctness awareness have made people cautious about stereotyping racial minorities and the two genders, the practice has not been eliminated. But oddly, for any group that is broader in base (and even less likely to be homogeneous), we seem to want to treat "them" as if they are all the same.

The mythical monoliths

The flood of articles in the media about what Gen Yers are like and how they differ from others might make you think that there are onerous new and emerging problems to be dealt with by using breakthrough ideas, understandings, and approaches. Research studies are being conducted, dissertations are being written, and many books now expound on this subject. And while there's often lip service paid to the counter-argument (by me, herein, and a few others), the same compressive tendencies prevail.

There are probable differences among these age groups that can be measured on a wide array of variables, but in all cases, the bell curve that displays the distribution of any one trait is rather wide. And in any one setting, with the wide variety of workplace assignments, expectations, and demands, the differences between individuals must still dominate the assessment and decision making by managers about their employees, and by training and development professionals responsible for the advancement of coherent and interactive groups of workers.

There are two factors causing the differences among the generations to be emphasized; one is behavioral and the other is demographic.

  • The rapidly changing technological environment has created an observable and "foreign" (to some) set of behaviors among young adults.
  • The aging of our population, combined with the financial challenges of retirement in a depressed economy, has caused many seniors to delay retirement. This demographic factor may exacerbate the potential conflicts between subgroups of employees with different values and standards.

Differences, real and imagined

The most often-cited sources of rancor between people in their 20s and those in their 50s or 60s are

  • Millennials are not quite as committed to their work.
  • Millennials do not value face-to-face contact the way other generations do.
  • Millennials embrace and are dependent on all forms of technology.
  • Millennials balance and prioritize their work and family responsibilities differently from older generations. Some claim that this makes men and women equally active and engaged parents and easily distracted in favor of family concerns over their work assignments.

Boomers, and even some Gen Xers, frequently express concern that Millennials act entitled and are not as committed to their workplace responsibilities. A significant basis for these observations is caused either by misperception, prejudice, or poor communication.
I know, for instance, many Baby Boomers who are geeky about technology. At the same time, I also know some 50-year-olds whose commitment to their work is less than exemplary. There are individuals of every age who break the mold.

Managers often are training their employees, so it is important to realize the major differences in learning you are likely to encounter when training Gen Yers:

  • They will be less likely to benefit from or thrive in passive learning situations.
  • They will readily use electronic sources and methods rather than print or even dialogue.
  • They are less inclined to maximize and grow from interactive methods.
  • They usually are motivated by graphics and animation.

Trainers should take into account these four points as they design and implement training programs, but don't forget that not all Millennials are the same.

Why employers should care

Age differences can be laden with the temptation to prejudge. On some dimensions, Millennials really are different in their own work habits and in their perceptions and reactions of others. In no uncertain terms should the existence of differences among people call for different treatment. Rather, it screams for equal treatment.

In my book Effective Management: 20 Keys to a Winning Culture (ASTD, 2013), I devote an entire chapter to the subject of difference. I write:

"It is foolish to assume that all people who share common ancestry have the same values, the same desires, the same proclivities or anything else of significance. It would be very pleasant in the world if everyone were to be judged solely on their individual traits, strengths, weaknesses, and behaviors ... but sadly there remains a tendency for some people to stereotype."

I also suggest two ways leaders can minimize the impact of stereotyping: "First, go out of your way to overtly show the opposite sentiment, and second, make it clear that you will not accept the manifestation of any form of difference-based hatred or prejudice under any circumstances or by anyone, regardless of rank or stature."

Tips for managers

As far as numbers, Millennials are about the size of the Baby Boomers, and yet there are significantly fewer Gen Xers. Therefore, as Boomers retire there will not be enough Gen Xers to fill leadership roles unless some of the Millennials mature and move up more rapidly—with all sorts of implications.

If you are in a position to hire people, it is up to you to create a match that will work for you and your organization. This, then, is the first key. Choose people based on talents, potentials, and on other personal traits—and not on generational stereotypes. A good fit is what you should always seek, and attitude toward work is one of the most important variables in any hiring decision.


Mentor those you hire in ways that do not destroy or undermine their strengths but help produce a cohesive collective and a better workplace.

Most people—even the most self-indulgent— want opportunity. If they are not highly motivated, they still want to feel secure in their working relationships. They also need to be informed of their rights, their responsibilities, and the details of what the organization is trying to achieve. Enabling these still is, and always will likely be, the key to good management practice.

Also, make sure your organization has a clearly stated mission, and that the strategic approaches are broadly disseminated. The roles played by individuals of any age, except in the relatively uncommon circumstance of real independence, are always interactive. Meaningful work is important for people of all ages, and making workers aware of the nature and significance of their efforts is a key responsibility of managers and training and development professionals.

As a manager, a main element of your job is assessing performance and ensuring that goals are met. It's important for you to know how your employees use and misuse their time. This knowledge should affect how you monitor, measure, evaluate, and compensate.

There are distractions in the workplace that are enhanced by computer access, and younger people may well be more adept at using such opportunities. But it is up to managers and the training and development team to be alert to the real and perceived problems created.

With the passage of time, new problems emerge, and the rate of change of every kind is constantly accelerating. Be alert and tuned in. Communicate openly. Don't assume anything, and don't ever make the mistake of prejudging anyone.

If you can hold on to the main points outlined here, and not be swayed by the flood of ink predicting greater difficulty than is actually likely, your employees enthusiastically will assist you in succeeding. This is because the young, the old, and all those in between want to do well. Help them meet their goals and they'll reciprocate.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict and rancor come from any of the most commonly found bases of difference, not just age. Confront all but the most trivial forms of conflict that arise by applying three simple but weighty principles of conflict resolution:

  • Confront the situation openly with all parties together, and invite full disclosure.
  • Treat each party equally and with respect and dignity.
  • Bring focus on the superordinate goals.
About the Author

A. Keith Barnes served as the S. V. Hunsaker Professor of Management at the University of Redlands in Southern California from 1984 to 1999, where he won awards for teaching and service. He authored the academic book Management Maturity: Prerequisite to Total Quality Management and more than 60 articles and monographs on a wide variety of business subjects. He holds a doctorate in organizational management and an MBA, both from Pepperdine University. His undergraduate work was completed in England (mechanical engineering) and in Canada (psychology). Before becoming an academic, he was a senior executive with the J. I. Case Company, which was then a part of the Fortune 500 Company Tenneco.

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