Refuse Generational Labels; You’ll Lead Better

Scroll through your social media feed, and it’s highly likely you’ll see a post that bashes Millennials and the generation of kids today. Usually, there’s a picture of a string of teenagers looking at their phones or taking selfies with dire warnings of the coming apocalypse written underneath. Or perhaps you’ve seen the guilt-inducing, “share if you agree” tirade that includes a grainy vintage photo and words extolling how you came from a generation that used to play in the dirt with rusty nails, and you turned out okay.

Whether you are a part of the Lost Generation, The Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, or Generation Z, is virtually meaningless for effective leaders. These labels are for broad spectrum marketing purposes, akin to arbitrarily naming storms. The World Meteorological Organization follows stringent criteria when naming hurricanes. Not so for winter storms, which The Weather Channel took upon itself to start naming in 2012 to help boost ratings. Conceivably, it helps communicate warnings, but fundamentally, it’s designed to improve marketing and hype. Yes, names can help with recall later, but if you say, “The Blizzard of ‘78” you already have more information than “Winter Storm Maya.”

Unless you are writing policy for millions of people, you shouldn’t be overly concerned about generational labels. Just like with the plethora of behavior assessments, if you learn someone is a High-D, a parrot, a dolphin, or any other noun, it’s simply a quick shorthand you can use to try to understand a segment of your work group. But tread lightly, because tools are only useful if the person knows how to use them. People like to fit in, to be part of a tribe, but few enjoy labels. Besides, it starts to feel arbitrary and unimportant. I anecdotally asked several people what generation they belonged to. They didn’t know and had to look it up. As a general rule, resist labeling, it starts to feel a little Hesther Pryn-ish.

We like to think each generation is unique, and they are, but it’s less for which Batman or James Bond they grew up with, or what national or man-made disaster they lived through, and more about which values they fit into.

Because I’m a consultant, I view the world through a quadrant matrix. There are social or personal means versus social or personal ends. Means are the methods you use, and ends are the desired goal. Social can be thought of as the whole (society), and personal is (you) or your very small group. Social Means, tend to be concerned with the moral responsibility of the whole, while Personal Means, tend to be more concerned with individual rights. Likewise, there are Social Ends (Greatest good for the greatest number) and Personal Ends (greatest good for me.) If you break the model down to it’s simplest form, it could be four sets of values.

  1. Everybody looking out for everybody else for the greater good,
  2. Individuals looking out for themselves for the greater good;
  3. Individuals looking out for themselves for their good,
  4. Everybody looking out for individual ends.

You could plug various generations into that matrix, but that would only be a snapshot, and depending on other factors, e.g. social, economic, geographic, could be potentially misleading. Generational labels, or labels of any kind, only provide a headline. To be an effective leader you need to dig into the story. That’s why I believe it’s more useful to look at the needs, wants, challenges and values we all share at different stages in life. Some examples:

–    In our late teens, we are starting to get better at balancing our emotions, but we are often detached and opinionated.

–    In our early 20s we think we are awesome and the world is terrible; by our late 20s we still think we’re awesome, but we now think the world is what it is, and we try to figure out how we can best get along with it. We have a general ambivalence in matters of love and money. We also test our beliefs and begin to shed the ones that no longer ring true for us.

–    The early 30s is a turning point. Those beliefs we discarded may cause conflict with our parents and other elders. Who we were is different from who we are. New things become important, and there is an urgency to “do something big” before 40.

–    In our 40s we engage in self-assessment, and we have a renewed determination to “make it” by acquiring material things and “own it” by reclaiming a sense of agency. It is about power. It’s no longer about fitting into the world. It’s about creating our version of the world and contributing to it.

–    By our late 40s, we are wondering. “is this enough?” or “Is that it?” Health-wise we often alternate between feeling like hell, and never feeling better.

–    In our 50s things and thinking shifts, and we return to any of the unfinished business of our 30s. We go on new adventures and develop a compelling, “it’s my turn” attitude.

–    In our 60s we are filled with memories, we have a long view of circumstances and a renewed sense of urgency, and in our 70s and beyond, we have a great, if not always positive, perspective on life, are reflective and, health permitting, frequently have fun and sheer delight in the unfolding of new things.

There’s no denying technology, also plays a role in defining generations; think radio, film, television, the internet. But we all share the same approximate general needs, wants, and challenges are various points in our life regardless of the enabling tools around us.

As a leader, you should be willing to test your assumptions about those who work with you. When you demonstrate curiosity and a willingness to challenge your assumptions you build empathy. Empathy, gratitude and the ability to teach are crucial skills for all leaders. It transcends generational thinking and puts greater focus on individuals. Letting them know that they matter. Spend less time budgeting for cultural perks to satisfy your team and more time exploring the strengths of those who are willing to help you achieve your vision, regardless of generation.

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