Working with Different Generations

In most workplaces where employees’ ages range from the early 20s to early 60s, generational theory can be a useful way to understand how each generation differs in their worldview, how that impacts their behaviour and their expectations of the workplace.

In a previous article I explored how the era you were born in can influence your worldview.

So, let’s make this practical: Why is it that the 55-year-old manager struggles to understand the behaviour of a 20-year-old employee? And how come your 35-year-old colleague, 20-year-old team members and 60-year-old client expect different things from the workplace? Let’s take a closer look.

The Silent Generation (born 1925 to 1945)

Most of the members of the Silent Generation are now older than 65 years. A large proportion of this generation is already retired, although some could still be working part-time. Some of your clients could also be in this age group. The following insights could help you to engage with this generation:

  • Members of the Silent Generation have a high measure of respect for authority and very high faith in formal institutions.

  • They believe that hard work is the “right thing to do” and they are defined by their career (e.g. “I was a lawyer, doctor or senior manager of XYZ.”).

  • Trust, privacy, conformity and formality are highly valued. When you communicate with this generation bear in mind that, with privacy and formality being important, they will not freely express their inner thoughts, not even through their body language. They could come across as complacent (even when they disagree), so it is important to listen to what they say.

  • Their word is their bond and they expect the same of others. So, keeping promises is very important to this generation.

The Baby Boomers (born 1943 to 1960)

This generation started the workaholic trend as they see hard work as the way to move to the next level in an organisation.

  • They define themselves by their professional achievements and are highly motivated by position, organisational benefits (e.g. company car, entertainment allowance) and prestige.

  • They are competitive, goal orientated and resourceful. They enjoy working in a team context.

  • Being raised in an era of change, they believe in challenging authority and the status quo. They are not afraid of confrontations (and debates) and openly express their feelings and views on a topic.

  • Being a self-expressive generation, the role of body language in any communication is important to the Boomers.

Generation X (born 1961 to 1981)

The children of the workaholic Baby Boomers have a “work to live rather than live to work” attitude.

  • Witnessing the collapse of organisations has made them sceptical about the reliability of a relationship with an organisation.

  • They believe loyalty is overrated (“If you want loyalty, get a dog.”).

  • They believe in investing in their own development rather than the company they work for.

  • They have an entrepreneurial attitude and are goal-oriented. They enjoy managing their own time and having flexibility, enabling a work-life balance.

  • Access to information is important, so bite-sized information frequently will work with this generation.

  • They want to give feedback and get feedback on a continuous basis.

  • Their preferred communication style is informal and electronic.

Generation Y (born 1982 to early 2000)

Growing up with internet has made that this generation regard their personal and private life as seamless. They need to make sense of what they are doing, no matter where they are.

  • A workplace that is fun is important for this generation.

  • With technology being integrated into their everyday life, they expect the benefits it offers – like being able to work remotely.

  • They want fair and direct managers who are highly engaged in their professional development.

  • They constantly require challenging projects in order to prevent boredom and attrition.

  • They require input to give input on how they are learning and they require the independency to do it their way.

  • They require systematic and frequent feedback – as it happens.

  • The environment is very important to this generation. They want to work for companies that are involved in the community and that care for the environment.

I trust this short overview will give you a starting point to understand your manager, colleagues, team members and clients. Keep in mind that this is only a starting point to build your understanding of people. Keep an open mind when engaging with every individual and his or her unique worldview.


Shaped by Your Year of Birth

In the workplace it is useful to understand other people’s worldview, and to make sense of what motivates them and their behaviour. Here, generational theory can be a useful starting point to understand how the era in which a person was raised could impact his or her approach to things.

Generations (1991) is the first book by William Strauss and Neil Howe in which they explore the generational theory. Generational theory is based on the premise that the particular generation that a person is born and raised in can shape his/her values, beliefs, needs and aspirations. A generation is typically a 20-year period (the estimated time from birth to the ability to give birth to a new generation).

Let’s explore the different generations:

The Silent Generation (born 1925 – 1945)

For the Silent Generation key events that have shaped their worldview are The Great Depression (1929 -1939) and World War II (1939 – 1945). This generation is described as grave, fatalistic and conventional. They obey authority of any kind. Stability and consistency are important values. The Silent Generation is also modest and do not condone excessiveness (a “waste not, want not” attitude).

Baby Boomer Generation (born 1943 – 1960)

This generation is named after the post World War II boom in births. Major events that inform the Boomers are Vietnam, Woodstock and the first man on the moon. They reject traditional values and rebel against authority. They are also called the “Me generation” as they believe in personal power that includes image, personal growth and self-expression. They also aspire to youth. They are workaholics, driven, goal-orientated and love to buy things to show their wealth.

X Generation (born 1961 – 1981)

This is the era of crises which include Watergate, Aids, 16 June 1976 (Youth Day), the energy crisis, the collapse of communism and the high divorce rate. X Generation members are seen as independent, resourceful and self-sufficient. They value freedom, flexibility and “work to live rather than live to work”. They ignore authority and have an entrepreneurial attitude that embraces taking risks. Being the first generation to grow up with personal computers makes them techno savvy.

Y Generation (born 1982 – early 2000)

As the first generation born in the new millennium they are also known as the Millennials. The 1986 Challenger explosion, 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the First Gulf War and 11 September 2001 bombings have been major events during this period. They are also known as “Generation Why?”, demanding reasons and rationale, so the traditional “because I said so” isn’t going to cut it with them. They have a short attention span and seek instant gratification. They are highly networked and collaborative. They are seen as optimistic and confident, and believe that they are “masters of their own destiny”. They grew up with technology and are plugged in all the time, relying on technology to make them more effective.

This is just a short overview of the events that shape different generations and the major descriptors of each generation. In next month’s article I will explore the how the expectations and behaviours of each generation play out in the workplace.

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Using SWOT to Draft an Achievable Strategy

Setting personal and business objectives and having a strategy to get to these objectives are deemed as good practices to achieve success. But how does one make sure your strategy will get you the desired results?

What is a strategy?

A simple definition for strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal or vision. The American business and management consultant Albert S Humphrey (1926 – 2005) devised the SWOT analysis technique to evaluate an idea or stress-test a strategy by assessing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of this idea or strategy.

So let’s see if we can use SWOT to put together an achievable strategy.

1. Start with an objective or goal in mind

Let’s say you would like to fill management position X in company Y by the end of 2011. Or your company would like to achieve a market share of 50% by December 2011. Read here for some pointers on goal setting.

2. Do the SWOT analysis

Test your plan of action in terms of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats:

Strengths What are your current capabilities or available resources to help you move towards your objective? Make sure you understand why these strengths are relevant to get you to your objective by reflecting on what these strengths can do for you. How will your strengths give you a competitive advantage? In our first example, these strengths might be your track record of good job performance, your industry experience, your ability to plan, organise, control and follow through on actions, and your ability to work with different people.

Weaknesses What will prevent you from achieving your objective? What do you have to develop or acquire to make things happen?

In our first example, it might be your lack of experience in managing a team, your inability to deal with conflict or your lack of exposure to working at a certain level in the organisation.

Opportunities What opportunities exist in your environment that you can use to help you achieve your objective? What should you do to capitalise on those opportunities? In our first example, it could be the opportunity to fill a leadership position at your church or sports club, to attend a relevant conference or to speak to your manager about getting a coach to assist you with your development.

Threats What are the things in your environment that will limit you or prevent you from achieving your objective? In our first example, it could a recession which causes a low staff turnover in management positions in the business sector in which you want to work. Too many competitors for these positions could also pose a threat.

3. Draft your action plan

Once you have done the SWOT exercise, assess whether your objective is realistic and achievable. Next, draft an action plan based on the SWOT exercise to identify the following:

  • What you should do to build on your strengths?

  • What skills and experience you should gain to address your weaknesses?

  • What you should do to capitalise on your opportunities?

  • What can you change to minimise or remove the threats?

Now move into action. As Robert G Allen says: “Fear melts when you take action towards a goal you really want.”

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