Book Club Highlights: Conversations on 5 Generations in the Office

generations
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Workplace demographics have been undergoing dramatic change during the past several years and with the arrival of Gen Z, more and more organizations are looking for guidance on how to navigate those shifts. I wrote Clash of the Generations: Managing a New Workplace Reality in the hope that it would be a useful tool for addressing that topic, and since its publication I’ve been delighted to see it become a helpful resource for many managers.

Many companies have even organized in-company “book clubs” to discuss my book, and several clients have invited me to lead and participate directly in these conversations. I love the format of book club–style discussions (one that recently concluded took place over six months!), because it enables participants to do a collective deep dive into the many issues involved with having multiple generations working side by side in the workplace.

Sometimes the conversations go in unexpected directions, and I’m always amazed by the creative thinking and interesting insights that emerge during these book club meetings. A few common threads connect most of the discussions, though. Here’s a sampling of some of the themes that come up most often when I throw out questions for everyone to explore together.

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QUESTION: What are we now expecting from our company leaders that is different from what our parents or our parents’ parents expected from their organization leaders?

When I pose this question in a book club meeting, participants of all ages often respond that in today’s workplace, they expect accountability, transparency, articulated and clear vision, work–life balance, diversity, and sustainability—which, interestingly, are all things most associated with Millennials’ expectations of their leaders.

But even when I point out that older generations share some of those same expectations—and remind everyone that Millennials have been in the workplace for several years now—many participants say that they still have a hard time figuring out how to cope with having those younger workers around. At book club meetings it often becomes clear that many of today’s older managers had expected Millennials to follow exactly in the footsteps of previous generations and were unprepared when, instead, Millennials started demanding that companies meet the expectations of younger generations.

Most successful managers have developed ways that work for them to motivate and engage employees. But because each new generation has its own needs and requirements, managers need to adjust in order to continue being successful at leading employees.

The way out of this quandry is for managers to figure out how to motivate and engage younger employees—a task that will become only more important as Generation Z is now entering the workforce too. Because Millennials and succeeding generations will require their managers to adapt their styles in order to motivate and engage them, having that adaptability will actually make those managers better managers for all of their employees (not just the younger generations).

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generationsQUESTION: What generation do you belong to, and how does that affect how you perceive the different generations?

The responses to this question are always interesting, partly because the boundaries between generations are fuzzy (my book offers date ranges as guidelines, but they’re definitely not carved in stone!), and partly because stereotypes and misperceptions inform so much of the interactions among different age groups.

Remember reading headlines in the 1980s and 1990s that were critical of Generation X? “Grow Up, Crybabies, You’re America’s Luckiest Generation,” wrote The Washington Post in 1993. Twenty years later, Time picked up the torch and applied it to the bonfire that public sentiment had built under the next generation, calling Millennials “lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow.”

When I share these headlines with book club participants and ask them to think about how they define and characterize different generations, that always gets them thinking about how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” And that, in turn, gets them thinking about how their assumptions influence how they manage.

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QUESTION: What do you think it means to be inclusive?

Lots of people equate “be inclusive” with “hire people from different demographic groups.” That’s only a small part of it, though.

During these book club discussions, I try to tease out an understanding that being inclusive also means providing equal opportunities post-hire. Managers need to be aware of how they treat everyone who works for them and not focus solely on their favorites. “Who gets the big offices?” and “Who gets the plum assignments?” are two areas in which preferential treatment is obvious. But managers shouldn’t neglect issues such as “Who gets invited to meetings?” and “Who gets introduced to influential people?” And sometimes how managers respond to seemingly minor concerns (such as “With whom do I regularly have lunch or coffee?” and “Which people do I sit next to?”) can have huge impacts on workplace inclusivity.

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QUESTION: How do the different generations define “work ethic”?

When I ask this question, book club participants usually drawn on  the same pool of words to describe someone who (in their opinion) has a good work ethic:

  • Honest
  • Full of integrity
  • Law-abiding
  • Fair
  • Respectful of others
  • Dedicated
  • Determined
  • Accountable
  • Concerned for others
  • Encouraging

What never appears on this list, though, is “loyal.” To understand this glaring omission, I encourage book clubs to ask themselves “What does loyalty mean to different generations?”

Long gone are the days when most employees would stay at their companies for their entire careers. Today, loyalty in the workplace has been redefined as “sticking around for two years.” As far as I’m concerned, managers are the ones who are best positioned to fix this problem. Unless they start being better managers, they won’t be able to keep younger employees engaged—or keep them around at all.

(And who taught today’s younger employees to bolt? At this point in the conversation, I ask book club participants to raise their hands if they have children who are under the age of 35. And when there’s a sea of hands in the air, I say, “Now bend your bend your elbows and pat yourselves on the back! We have met the enemy and he is us.”)

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Final Thoughts

As a book, Clash of the Generations is of course meant to be read. At the same time, though, it’s also meant to be discussed. In its pages, I present the knowledge I’ve gained through my own experiences in multiple aspects of the corporate world and offer some guidance for how to apply that knowledge. But as a manager, you need to examine your own circumstances, ask relevant questions, and develop—and implement—solutions that are uniquely suited to address your situation. Even the best management tool is useless unless it’s actually applied to a problem.

(If your organization is interested in having me participate in a book club about Clash of the Generations, please reach out to me. And if your company has already had discussions of this book, I’d love to hear about the questions and themes that came up!)

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