They describe the diminishing band of Builders (or Traditionalists), born in the war years and still clinging to hierarchy and structure; the Baby Boomers with their matrix structures and poor grasp of technology; the self-referenced Gen X brigade who cut their business teeth in the late 80’s and early ‘90s of red braces and Gordon Gekko; the Gen Ys digitally connected, impatient and scornful of convention; and finally those born after 1997 and soon to enter the workforce, most of whose life experience has been lived both in recession and on social media.
There are plenty who reject these broad stereotypes. Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School is quoted in the Harvard Business Review saying these stereotypes are ‘just not true. There is no evidence that 35-year-old managers today are any different from 35-year-old managers a generation ago.’ And yet we recognise the broad differences and the challenges they create.
The HBR article quoted above gives plenty of good advice on how to cope with the increasing complexity of generational differences. But I think it and many other commentators miss the main point. And that is that all human beings, of whatever generation, respond to two basic human needs. In clearly addressing these needs any organisation can transcend generational or indeed any other social ‘divides’.
The first is the fundamental need for a sense of purpose; to understand ‘why’ over ‘what’ or ‘how’. Organisations that clearly communicate a compelling purpose, and base their organisational culture and decision-making upon that purpose, are organisations with which members of any generation can engage. Purpose-led organisations transcend most human divisions by providing a context against which everyone can align amd engage.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry framed this concept rather lyrically when he said:
“if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
The second is the fundamental need for freedom and autonomy. Within a safe and blame-free culture, people will always do their best work when they feel sufficiently respected to be allowed to behave with a degree of autonomy. As Ajaz Ahmed, founder of the largest digital agency in the world puts it ‘hire good people who share your values, provide clarity in what needs to be done, trust them and give them independence to do their jobs’.
The same view was expressed by Commodore Jerry Kyd when I interviewed him about his command of HMS Ark Royal: ‘empower the able and you’ll be amazed by what people can achieve’.
Whatever the truth of the Five Generations scare stories, divisions will always exist within organisations. The secret to bridging them always exist in two simple word; purpose and freedom.