One of the biggest derailers for any growth process, either individually or organisationally, is to miss the phenomenon of behaviors and stop being aware of one’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Let us go a bit deeper and examine what is being said.
The Individual Level
We are currently amidst a social context of generations spanning baby boomers and millennials. The range of thoughts and beliefs are stretched at both ends of the spectrum. There are clear characteristics of these generations and the adjustments required to appreciate each other are stressful. Visualise a jigsaw puzzle of different pieces, all of whom are trying hard to fit into a social milieu and create a complete picture where actually there is not one. The real question is what is the picture we have in mind? Each individual is carrying an image based on their world view and sets of experiences, and the biggest chasm is in the quality of experiences each one has had over the years. So what we see are individual behaviors stemming from each one’s own perspective and when in a collective context, convergence to create a shared understanding becomes challenging.
The Organisational Level
What are some emergent themes? Leadership and management are facing dilemmas of coexisting generations within the workforce and the conflicting views they share, amidst a world that is more uncertain and volatile than before. This is in addition to the workplace now having a high emphasis on technology, digital, data, analytics, social media and virtual networking. Therefore, every organisation is staring at transformation pressures and the need to be nimble and agile.
Organisations need to closely examine their structures and their talent capabilities to be future-ready and that is not an easy task given the cross-generation workforce. Clearly, the trend is towards leveraging and optimising technology as well as flexible work arrangements, work-life balance and increased value of self-sufficiency/independence for organisations.
What is the Way Forward?
- Organisations recognise and articulate challenges transparently. It is futile for senior leadership to gather in boardrooms and other forums to draw up ambitious blueprints on how to manage millennials successfully. In my mind efforts have to be directed to build greater awareness for all. Reminders of reality like changes in work/life balance and different expectations for the different generations are important for both sides to acknowledge and not fight against. The older generations need to see what the new requirements are and be ready to let go of old assumptions.
- The younger generations need to acknowledge the world they live in has been created and enabled by previous generations’ innovative efforts and foresight in preparing for the future. So, instead of both the generations often being caught in contradicting or divergent positions, we need to foster and nurture spaces for joint viewing of the world and spend some time thinking of what legacy we all want to leave for the future. It is all very nice to think of oneself, and of the immediate present, and the short term, but is it profitable and realistic? Transient positions lead to a train of thought that is not rooted in values or beliefs, but is more embedded in an immediate benefit or in a response to an emerging event.
- Uncertainty causes the most angst today. No individual feels comfortable if their values and beliefs are challenged or not accounted for, and then each end up taking adversarial positions and hence the conflict. As an example of the conversation goes like this:
Person A—a baby boomer at the Director level: “I don’t quite get why you need to be in a hurry to get everything in life without having gone through the struggles of experience. In my time I had to be patient and wait and took me long to get there.” (The underlying theme is the belief that if you did not struggle and strive patiently you don’t achieve what you want)
Person B—a millennial and emerging leader: “why do I have to struggle to learn the hard way when the way has been experienced by someone else and I can get the takeaways online. This is not a shortcut—it is the way the world works. I do not have the time to wait as I need to move on.“ (The underlying theme is the belief that immediacy is what matters, I have access to information easily, and that is what matters)
Both worlds above currently coexist but we need to recognise the stress it creates. We need to be able to confront and face up to what is ahead of us especially in a world where technology is progressively become the order of the day and a mainstay of our lives. It is better to get ahead of this curve rather than be pulled along by it.
Why Don’t We Pick the Phone Up Anymore?
This leads me to another noticeable phenomenon of current times. We are overly dependent on gadgets, social networking, digital and much more. Though these technologies claim to make us even more connected, they can be counterintuitive. Rather than connect us or build a community, individuals use technology to put layers between them and colleagues, friends and family. They are content to remain in their virtual worlds, and even sometimes avoid face-to-face contact and conversations.
Real conversations are missing, and missing with this is the chance to hear changes in tone or see what another person’s body language is saying. As an example, at a broader organisation context, we often see in person meetings happening largely in social contexts and/or business offsite meetings where the effort and intent is to take a break and escape from the day-to-day realities. Those spaces don’t offer the opportunity to deal with the struggles and pains of day-to-day living and existence. Where is the opportunity for those ‘real’ conversations? How do I get to know you and your emotions better without the use of emoticons? When am I willing to listen to what is not being said? How do I even get communities to come together in real time and talk about what it takes to build communities and weave a social or organisational fabric that harnesses the potential of individuals and values them as well? What are the forces that work against this and causes disruptions? How can I leverage technology to build relationships and not be overly reliant on them to the point where they displace human contact? Authentic relationships and virtual contexts can and do exist simultaneously, so why not learn from those?
These and many more questions remain unanswered for me and what I observe is rather than questioning the need for the virtual in every situation, we seem to find ease and comfort in it and don’t feel the need to have in-person conversations. This phenomenon unfortunately erodes relationship-building processes that require some degree of effort and long-term investment. People today may not accept this and think of it as an outdated idea. However, if they hit the pause button on their frenetically paced life to ponder and think, they will realise the value of investing time and energy in face-to-face chats.
A similar phenomenon of ease and immediacy applies to organisations. Organisations today find it challenging to engage in long term thought processes as that takes time and investment of not only the material tangible resources but of the non-tangibles. The focus seems to weigh heavily on building effective and efficient organisations particularly in response to an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Responses need to be immediate or urgent, and these get in the way of focused long-term thinking. What seems to take center stage is what is best for right now and today, this quarter rather than in two years, and for the business leader it is about how will I show up in my term and tenure. Hence, for obvious reasons, there is lesser focus on what is good for the organisation long-term. The interest and investment required to create a legacy or a strong institution for the future seems to fall short or get challenged. Leadership in organisations need to have the courage to stand the tide and question the phenomenon, to get to the root and deal with that. Leaders can start doing this by taking time to reflect and ask the questions to build greater awareness. Avoidance or not recognising the problem in order to get through today or leaving it unattended can eat away and corrode the fundamental value systems of the organisation.
- Coexistence of cross-generational workforces has to be based on a foundation of respect and trust. There can be no second-guessing each other or trying to satisfy and placate each other.
- Acceptance of the current reality needs to start by deep questioning of why and not what is happening? And individuals and organisations need to build courage to have real conversations without seeking refuge in artificial contexts and mediums.
- Individuals and organisations alike need to take a pause at times to examine the current reality and draw from experience and history to build ahead.
- Cross-generational existence is not a thing of today. It has already existed, and the points of transitions and inflexions now can be painful but they also provide the maximum opportunity for movement and growth. That is how new paradigms and new orders come into being.
We all have a role in this and as HR professionals, we do need to be more prescriptive than ever before in not only holding up the mirror but also throwing the light on the right areas for individuals, leaders and organisations to take note. We need to nudge a little more strongly for action as we owe it to the systems we belong in and more important to ourselves as human beings.