Do Boomers and Millennials Approach Work Differently?

At a conference I recently attended, I observed a fascinating exchange between attendees of two different generations. The older of the two said he was beleaguered by the nonstop questions posed by younger staff members when tasked with an assignment. He interpreted these employees as lacking initiative, wanting to be spoon-fed, instead of taking on the work themselves. The younger employee countered: People of his generation asked questions because they wanted to get the assignment right, not to avoid the work. The dialogue continued as others injected their thoughts on differing generational work styles. I think everyone in the room walked away with a new perspective and hopefully with more appreciation for generational views other than their own.

This kind of exchange is all too common in workplaces today. With five generations now working together, there are many different perspectives on how to work most effectively. Generational research attempts to outline the various work styles and the root causes behind them to enhance cross-generational understanding. But, does this type of research also unwittingly call out differences that really aren’t there?

Stereotypes and Metastereotypes in the Workplace

Two research studies bring a new lens to the debate on whether generations in the workplace really have vastly different work values and approaches. Writing in Harvard Business Review, researchers Eden King, Lisa Finkelstein, Courtney Thomas, and Abby Corrington question the accuracy of generational stereotypes in their article “Generational Differences at Work Are Small. Thinking They’re Big Affects Our Behavior.” Examining 20 different research studies among people of different generations led them to believe that “although individual people may experience changes in their needs, interests, preferences, and strengths over the course of their careers, sweeping group differences depending on age or generation alone don’t seem to be supported.” Instead, they found that it’s the very beliefs that these differences exist that may be getting in the way of people from different generations working more effectively together. They suggest that both generational stereotypes and metastereotypes—that is, what we think others believe about us—are causing disconnects among different age groups.

The researchers further found that these stereotypes and metastereotypes can get in the way of people being trained properly and/or mentored for leadership positions. This can have devastating consequences for any organization seeking to develop the next generation of leaders. How can we combat this? Certainly, talking openly about these stereotypes can be helpful, as well as role-playing among employees of different generations. The authors suggest, however, that organizations may see the biggest payoff when they use a “shared goals approach,” so that young and old alike can see themselves working toward the same outcome. They suggest that “focusing on commonalities or a common direction can reduce perceptions of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and can create or reinforce a sense of ‘we.’ ”

Management Styles Among Generations

Another recent study reported in the MIT Sloan Management Review examined whether generational differences influence management styles. Conducted among 10,000 people of various ages, this study probed differences in management style as people age through their careers. Like the previous study, this one did not find generational differences per se that determined how a person would manage throughout their career, but rather different styles that emerged during the course of a manager’s journey. To illustrate, researchers Julian Birkinshaw, James Manktelow, Vittorio D’Amato, Elena Tosca, and Francesca Macchi identified five categories of activities that all managers should prioritize in their work, gleaned from previous research on this topic: (1) managing external context, such as customers and competitors; (2) managing internal context, such as relationships with other business units; (3) managing people, especially those reporting directly to you; (4) managing tasks, such as decision-making and problem-solving; and (5) managing yourself, including using time effectively and developing skills.

The following chart from MIT Sloan Management Review identifies how workers use different muscles in service of this work at different times in their careers.

Younger managers tend to be more tactical in their style, relying on business models and concrete management tactics to guide their work, while older managers make better use of their emotional intelligence skills in managing. Also, younger managers are more focused on making a good impression, not surprising for this stage in their journey, while older workers are more apt to delegate and shine the limelight on others, being more secure in their careers. In other contrasts, researchers found that older managers focus more on the “big picture, core competencies, and customer relationships, while younger managers were more focused on positioning in the marketplace.” Combining the more model-driven tactical approach, with the relational one can create powerful partnerships in the workplace. Without these differing approaches, used to achieve a shared outcome, organizations would be far less productive. And, for schools in particular, by understanding the journey of leadership as staff members age, we can do a better job of creating mentorship programs that assist people in acquiring the skills and dispositions they will need to excel over time. The authors describe that journey in this way.
Managers in their 20s and 30s are on a journey of personal discovery, learning through trial and error and self-analysis. As they become older and more experienced, they understand themselves better and become more resilient and better able to prioritize. Eventually, they reach a stage where the emphasis is on relationships with others and an acceptance of who they are.
Like the researchers in the previous studies, this group also points to the importance of developing a shared perspective—that is, agreeing on the outcomes and how employees will work together to achieve those outcomes. The study further noted that people of different ages use many different tools and techniques in achieving the same ends. Therefore, getting team members to talk about these differing techniques at the outset of a project and why they prefer one approach to the other can ensure that there are fewer misunderstandings along the way. As the authors note, “Through these discussions, teams can develop a shared language and perspective that helps individual members expand their notion of which techniques work and become more effective collaborators.”

In this time of intense tribalism, we can work to break down age barriers. Getting different generations to appreciate each other’s styles and leveraging those to improve school effectiveness will result in growth for all. As the Society for Human Resource Management so eloquently says, “Age is a number, not a credential. By removing the lens of age as a way to view existing or potential employees, you can shift the focus to their abilities, skills, experience, and knowledge, where it belongs.”

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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.