Monday, July 24, 2006

The Generation War: My Money's on the Last Ones Living

It's funny, I intended on writing about this today anyway, then I saw something happen that matched my subject perfectly. Things will go well if I get those coincidences every day...maybe tomorrow I'll write about how my wife should let me go for a threesome... ;)

This is a story of two generations, boiled down to two people:

Employee #1 has been with the organization about 25 years. He's happy to do no more than what is expected of him. And barely that. But, he knows exactly how much to give you in order to stay out of the doghouse. Doesn't volunteer on special projects, doesn't like doing things that stray the least bit from his regular duties. He talks to the other workers about how he can't stand the new ways of doing things, and threatens to leave constantly, but everyone knows he never will. We'll see his skeleton sitting at his pc before he ever leaves.

Employee #2 has been with the organization about 4 years. She recently returned from study leave, and will be quitting in about three months to pursue another career. Since I was assigned to this unit after she left for her study leave, today was the first day that I was officially her manager. So I asked her, what made you so unhappy that you felt you had to leave? Is there something we could have done differently? And she answers "it's not that I wasn't happy here, I just thought I could be happier someplace else". Hmmmmm. Can't argue with that. I've often pondered the same thing, so I couldn't really hold it against her.

In essence, these are the two major cohorts in today's workplace: the Boomers and Gen Y. The martyrs and the dreamers. With Gen X, God love'em, stuck as the weirdos in the middle.

The problem is, the Gen Yers don't understand why the unhappy old farts don't just quit, or why they don't want to stop doing things their way. And the Boomers don't understand why the Gen Yers don't seem to have any idea that work isn't supposed to be fun, and you have to put in your time to get ahead.

What compounds things is that more often than not, managers are boomers themselves, and tend to identify more readily with members of their own cohort. My problem, as a young manager, is the opposite. But, to all you Gen Yers out there, I've had the opportunity to infiltrate the Boomer camp, and made some really interesting discoveries, which I will share, in order to allow us Gen Yers to get ahead.

So, in a nutshell, this is how Gen Yers should try to work with our more experienced (rule 1: never say "older") colleagues:

Rule 2: Boomers will NOT meet you halfway. They have the experience, they have the power, they know how things work, and they will not hesitate to constantly remind you of this fact, while mixing in such lovely commentary, such as "if you were here in the 80s, you would have known that..." or "why should I have to adapt to computers? I've been here longer than they have". Or the classic line in the sand: "I've been doing this job longer than you've been alive."
How to overcome this? Hang on a Boomer's every word, as if they were Moses descending from the mount with the 10 Commandments in hand. Once you get around their disdain for you, they actually have some useful information.

Rule 3: Let the Boomers have the last word. They'll have it anyway, whether you want them to or not. Just keep in mind that you'll be around longer than they will, so you'll have the last word of all.

Rule 4: Let the Boomers have the credit. During team projects and exercises, be content to sit and learn from your colleagues. If you have a suggestion to make, make it briefly, but don't press the issue if it isn't accepted. Often, a Boomer will magically come up with the same idea minutes, hours, days or months later, once your poignant comment has seeped into their subconscious. If the project is a success, defer all credit to your team leader. He will appreciate the fact that you "know your role" and see you as less of a threat to his modus operandi, which is to survive long enough for an undiscounted pension. Once this relationship is established, he will be more willing to open up and share, and also slightly more willing to hear your take on things. A sign of this willingness is when he makes statements like "I thought all you young people didn't want to listen to your elders and do everything your way".

Rule 5: Even if you know it all (I'm not ruling out that possibility), act like you don't. Boomers don't take well to hearing how the world works from a 26 year-old MBA. And can you blame them? Every young whippersnapper that comes along is a reminder of their missed opportunities, of how much they could have done if they had cared enough, if they hadn't had that fourth child, if they had moved to the city younger, etc. As an aside, MBAs come across, for the most part, as pompous asses, and no one likes a pompous ass on the job. I have to side with the Boomers on this one.
So, how to let Boomers see things your way, without telling them? Boomers like nothing more than to figure things out on their own. They have this knack of putting two and two together and thinking they've discovered Einstein's Theory of Relativity. So, present them with the information in a clear and logical manner (this will also help you organize your thoughts for things like business cases), and let THEM figure it out. Of course, present the information in exactly the right way for them to come to YOUR conclusion.

Rule 6: Take the high road. Remember, they're the ones on the top of the hill. They'll get the benefit of the doubt. Make sure you keep your nose clean. And never, ever, EVER, kick anyone while they're down. Actually, use this rule for interacting with everyone.

Basically, just remember, they've got the authority for now, but you're the ones being left to pick up the tab. The sooner you can work with the Boomers without coming to loggerheads with them, the more you'll be able to learn from them, and the more damage you'll be able to mitigate while they're still there.


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