It’s a Whole New World:
Is Your Management Style Up To Date?
by Mary Rau-Foster
“It just ain’t like it used to be” can be heard throughout the halls, break rooms and offices in many workplace environments. Indeed, most things in the changing workplace are not like they used to be. Many managers complain that they no longer recognize the environment in which they have worked for years. Confusion reigns about why it has changed and what should be done about it.
Look around you and you will see a diverse work group. The diversity includes race, gender, national origin, and religious differences. Perhaps one of the most challenging changes is the age and generational diversity.
What influences an employee’s ethics and values in the workplace? Do they differ from generation to generation?
In the 50’s the workplace was comprised of people whose value systems and work ethics were greatly influenced by the Great Depression and world wars. The themes of the day included: (1) appreciation for the opportunity to have a job; (2) the expectation of loyalty to a company; and (3) a belief that the boss was always right. The management style was patriarchal: management was the brains and labor was the brawn. This was accepted as a way of life, and it worked… back then. But things have changed.
Enter the baby boomers, a generation born during a period beginning in 1946 until the 1960s. This group rejected the old ways of blindly following the path laid out by employers. This group wanted more influence on how the workplace was run. They wanted participatory management. In addition, their job became a source of personal identity. The boomer’s opening question of “And what do you do for a living” is inevitably followed by an “I am…” response. Much of the boomer’s self-esteem was, and still is, tied up in their job.
Boomers are willing to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the American dream of having it all so they can improve their self-esteem and image. This was often done at the expense of their children, many of whom became latchkey children. These children developed certain skills and abilities as a result of being home alone. They are more independent and more likely to be loners.
The latchkey children of yesterday are those known today as Generation X. Their attitudes about life and the workplace were shaped by observing their frantic parents running in the rat race to achieve material possessions. They watched as companies laid off hundreds of employees and as their parents become victims of the frequent corporate mergers.
As they observed the effect this had on their parents, many Gen Xers decided to do things differently. They would not become consumed by the demands of the workplace. That is not to say that they would be slackers, only that they would not become so invested in being an extension of their jobs.
The desires, values, and attitudes of the Gen Xers were also shaped by an unstable economy, threats of war, political scandals, fraudulent behaviors among prominent business people, and baby boomers who would continue to dominate the work force.
Many Gen Xers are taking paths that differ from that of their parents. They look beyond the job as the source of their self-esteem and have taken questioning of authority figures to new heights. This new attitude has confounded the older generations and makes it more difficult for the boomer managers to manage the Gen Xers.
Basic management concepts apply to all employees. However, the traditional methods of management may not have the same impact upon Generation X that it did upon the baby boomers and their parents. Generation X employees question authority, disagree with their superiors, and challenge the old ways of thinking. They are not as impressed or motivated by the workplace rewards and opportunities as the previous generations might have been. Many have entrepreneurial stirrings and want to own their own companies. Others may be instrumental in furthering the concept of “intrapreneuring” within the corporate environment. They want the authority and autonomy to participate in day to day decision-making and long term company planning.
These generational differences in expectations, values, and ideas of what a job is all about baffle many managers. They may also lead to conflict in the workplace as the generational differences bump up against each other, especially where the employees and their jobs are interdependent. Mix a pre-World War II manager, a baby boomer, and a Generation X employee together, and you may find challenges, as well as the potential for growth.
The economical survival of any business requires that employees’ needs, attitudes, and differences be taken into consideration. The easiest route may be to temporarily sweep the problems under the rug; however, those problems will not remain hidden.
Should consideration be given to the style or ideation of a particular group? An argument could be made for treating everyone alike, but how successful will that be?
So what do Gen Xers really want? According to Claire Raines, author of the book “Beyond Generation X: A Practical Guide for Managers,” they want to be appreciated, have flexibility and a life beyond the workplace, work in a team environment, to have a chance to develop their skills, be asked their opinions, and they want managers to lighten up and practice what they preach.
So how is this different from what other employees want? Are not the baby boomers looking for the same things? In some cases, the answer is “Yes.” However, the Gen Xers may be more willing to walk if they don’t get what they want. Also, the Gen Xers are less likely to be pacified with platitudes, mollified with motivational sayings (rather than doings), or seduced by suggestions of future rewards.
It certainly is a whole new world out there. To the extent that managers are willing to understand and accept that there are differences between the generations and are willing to work with, and even celebrate, the differences, they can create a very satisfying and productive work environment for all employees.
Please Note: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not the intent of Mary Rau-Foster to render legal advice. If legal advice is required, you should seek the services of a competent lawyer.