May 15

Stop The Madness – It’s Not About Their ‘Generation’

From the World Atlas: “A generation is comprised of people who were born and are living around the same period. It is considered around 30 years…”  The World Atlas suggests seven different generations exist today based on when you were born:

  1. Z – 1995-present
  2. Millennials – 1981-1995
  3. X – 1965-1980
  4. Baby Boomers – 1946-1964
  5. The Silent Generation – 1925-1941
  6. The G.I. Generation – 1901-1924
  7. The Lost Generation – 1883-1900

Consider the numerous social media posts and articles that dissect the differences between Gen Z or Millennials and other generations. This topic has undeniably piqued a significant amount of interest.

One example of these articles appeared in Chief Executive Magazine recently. Dale Buss wrote “Talking About THAT Generation” – “Balance, purpose, opportunities for advancement – what Gen Zers want is hardly unique. The difference may be that they won’t settle for anything less.” I enjoyed reading this article. It made me think more about the young people in my life.

While I appreciate these articles’ insights, I grapple with the complexity of generational issues. The lack of scientific rigor and the tendency for descriptions to overlap or contradict can be perplexing.

In April, a CEO asked me in front of a leadership training class to comment on a perceived generational issue. The assessment he presented to the class was about a perceived generational weakness of young people. He opined that many of them are incapable of receiving difficult feedback. His question was whether they knew others who had an emotional breakdown after being given challenging constructive feedback. The class was made up of young people.

When the CEO posed his question about a perceived generational weakness, I was taken aback. I firmly believe that making sweeping generalizations about any generation is misguided. The class didn’t benefit from having to defend a cultural assessment.

Bobby Duffy has spent years studying generational distinctions. He published “The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think” at the end of 2021. His overall finding is that people in different age groups are much more alike. He says “virtually none” of the generational differences exist in the workplace.

There are definitely differences between generations, but when used to describe a large group of people, assessments and generalizations become a form of stereotyping. It has a productive use if used to help marketing be more targeted. If it allows recruiters to attract potential employees better and HR professionals to create better benefits, it makes sense. However, we are not leading effectively when we use it to label others or make excuses for their behavior.

Unless we study valid research about generations, we tend to further extend popular assessments about different generations (many of them negative) when we don’t understand. “They don’t want to work hard.”

Judgment is the opposite of love. Great leaders care so much about their people that they often emulate love. When we judge others, they feel it. When generational descriptors help justify our judgment, we minimize our ability to influence and lead others.

What do great leaders do to engage people from all walks of life: different ages, sexes, backgrounds & experiences? They are “relationship scientists”. They learn how to create relationships built on trust and respect. They consistently convey to others that they are interested in them.

Outstanding leaders develop significant influence because of the quality of their relationships. Dwight D. Eisenhower said it well: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want to be done because he wants to do it.”

To be an extraordinary leader, you must develop your ability to adapt your authentic leadership style to all generations. Your responsibility is to determine what inspires and motivates your team members to do their best work. What are their strengths and talents? Do you know their passions and motivations? What are their values?

We build trust and respect when we stop thinking about people’s generations and learn who they are as unique people. My recommendation is to worry less about what generation someone is in, spend more time being curious about who they are, ask questions about their family of origin, and make it your goal to discover everything that makes them unique and special.

Let’s stop putting people into boxes because of when they were born and connect better with them, no matter how different they are. Being curious is your relationship superpower. Use it to connect with them deeply; you will never have to worry about what generation they fit or don’t fit into.

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