Last month, we began looking at the challenge that Generation X managers face when leading baby boomer officers who are older and more experienced. We considered how Gen Xers are dealing with Boomers in the workplace much longer than originally anticipated and the frustrating fact that Boomers seem to get along better with up-and-coming Gen Y officers than their Gen X supervisors.
We addressed the three generations’ age gaps and pivotal cultural events during which each generation came of age in order to determine differences in communication styles, what motivates each group and what each considers meaningful rewards on the job.
What’s a Gen X Supervisor to Do?
Grandchildren and their grandparents often get along better than parents and their offspring. It’s natural. There’s less direct competition, less direct authority rubs and simply more time and distance to soften and delight in different life views. Usually, Gen Y officers are eager to learn from their Boomer elders while Gen Xers can’t wait for them to step aside and retire.
It’s not that Gen X supervisors think they have nothing to learn from their Baby Boomer direct reports, but they’ve been dealing with their older officers’ air of superiority longer. Seeing Boomers as mentors might have worn thin with newly promoted Gen X supervisors.
So what can you do if you’re caught in the middle managing between Boomers and younger generations?
In two online articles, Tammy Erickson suggests that Gen X supervisors recognize the challenge of being stuck in the middle and approach this challenge with judo management.
According to Wikipedia (which does not, by and large, constitute “research” with my generation, but, hey, I’m trying to embrace the younger generations’ use of democratic knowledge), the word judo shares the same root as jujitsu, which may mean “gentleness,” “softness,” “suppleness” and even “easy,” depending on its context. The use of ju is a direct reference to the martial arts principle of the soft method (juho). This method embraces the principle of using an opponent's strength against him and adapting well to changing circumstances.
Use the Attraction Between Boomers & Gen Yers to Your Advantage
Don't fight the natural draw between Boomers and Gen Yers; leverage it to your advantage. Encourage mentoring relationships between Boomer and Y officers—both ways. Boomer officers can share wisdom and experience; Y officers can use their technical savvy to teach Boomers. This can save you a lot of valuable time that you'd otherwise have to invest in developing the skill sets of your younger reports and the technological competencies of your Boomers.
You, the Gen X supervisor, can also embrace the Y officers’ technological prowess. Challenge and encourage them to look for innovative ways to get work accomplished faster and easier or to redesign departmental, shift or squad processes.
Because they’re our first generation of "unconscious" technology users, Gen Yers tend to do things differently without even trying. It’s like the Zen notion of beginner’s mind which challenges you to look at a problem like it’s the very first time you’re seeing it. It’s easier to do this if it actually is the first time. Y officers can bring that fresh approach.
To a Baby Boomer, Form Sometimes Is Substance
I’m a Boomer. When researching the part above about judo, I took the time to Google whether the commas went inside or outside the quotation marks for the phrases "gentleness," "softness," "suppleness" and "easy." Wikipedia had the commas outside the quotation marks. I think most of my comparably aged professional colleagues would agree that’s not correct.
I’m generalizing here, but I can only imagine one of my four Gen X daughters bothering with this (and that one is a stretch). Lord only knows (another cliché that seems to be losing steam across generations) what Twittering will do to such questions. But despite the fact that Boomers coined the term “question authority” when we were coming of age, form often does matter to us. Same goes for “paying one’s dues” and “rank having its privileges.”
I’ve long ago sensed that Gen Xers are less formal. I understand this. They’ve been encouraged to speak their opinions by their parents, teachers and the media, which has tried to cater to them since they were very young children. Chances are at some point in their public education they called their teachers by their first names. In addition, I’m guessing that most of their male teachers didn’t wear ties and their female teachers didn’t wear panty hose, like mine did.
In contrast, most Boomers were raised to never address an elder by their first name and to use terms like “yes ma'am” and “no sir” when responding to them. I recently experienced how these generational differences can cause communication gaffes.
My traditionalist husband took a 30-something son of a friend under his wing and introduced him to a three-star general with the U.S. Air Force. After a number of shared rounds of golf, my husband suggested that his protégé might be well-served if he and his wife invited the general and his wife (along with us) over for dinner. Subsequently, my husband and the general got an e-mail invitation in which the younger man referred to the general by his nickname, “DT,” and suggested that I might bring salad, and “DT” could bring wine.
I’m guessing that Boomer and Traditionalist readers might understand why my husband and I were aghast. Our daughters might say to us, “What’s the big deal?” My grandson might respond, “And your point is?” Clearly, there’s a generational gap.
To all the Gen X supervisors out there reading this article, yes, rank has its privileges. However, just because you’re wearing more brass doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show respect to an older officer. Wait for them to invite you to call them by their first name. Ask them for their opinion on important matters. Ask whether they’ve encountered the same situation, how it was previously handled, and if they have any ideas for how the issue might be handled better. These officers will truly appreciate your effort.
Our Motivations Change Over Time
Once upon a time, Boomers were known as competitive, climb-the-ladder workaholics and Gen Xers are seen as desiring more of a work-life balance. But age can round out that Boomer worker drive. Take it from me, an aging Boomer, an increasing sense of mortality is both humbling and honing. It shines a different light on everything. Things that were once extremely important become less so, and vice versa.
For example, obtaining a corner office or preferred parking space might have seemed like a worthwhile goal years ago. Now, remaining engaged and interested at work while making meaningful contributions have taken on new importance. In short, our motivations change over time.
In their 2010 book, Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order, Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli recognize this fact. Here are some of their suggestions for Gen X supervisors managing older Boomer workers:
In Sum: Don’t Overgeneralize Generations
In her online article entitled Why Managing Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y Is Impossible, Anna Johnson suggests that all this cross generational work force communication is a bunch of “hoopla” (my word, not hers). She asserts, “[I]nstead of treating people as part of some Generation, or indeed classifying them as part of any group, why not treat them as individuals?”
She then suggests that you find out what drives the people you manage individually.
Although I don’t necessarily disagree with this, I’m not ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. You find out what motivates people by asking them. But how you ask them may well produce different results. In his book Reawakening the Spirit in Work, Jack Hawley suggests that leaders ask their employees, “How is your spirit?” Be advised, Gen X supervisors, a lot of Boomers are going to respond to that question with thought balloons like: “Whaddya mean ‘how’s my spirit?’ That’s none of your business! I come to work and I get the job done, don’t I? Okay, then, leave my spirit out of it. I’ll take care of my spirit if it’s all the same to you, buster.”
Instead, ask your Boomer officers: “Do you feel respected?” And ask your Y officers: “Do you feel like you’re an important part of important work?”
How you frame the question across generations can be critical to getting the information you need to be an effective leader. After you listen to your officers’ responses, take action to address any problems or concerns. All generations want to feel listened to and relevant.