Adapting to new ways of doing things is rarely painless. As a boomer, I sometimes find it challenging to work with millennials. It can feel like they are trying to take over the team.
A law firm once invited me to speak on a panel about generational differences with a millennial, a Gen Xer, and another boomer. I was to be both a participant and the moderator. Everyone else on the panel was a lawyer. I was invited because of my expertise in generational theory. They were there to offer their personal perspectives while I facilitated and led the discussion.
We had a series of conference calls beforehand to plan. The millennial speaker immediately started issuing off-the-cuff suggestions about how to run the panel and what we should cover. I was put off that she seemed to think she was running the show when—ahem—certain other people on the line had far more expertise on the topic at hand. Only one of us had spent years reviewing relevant research . . . and it wasn’t her. Nonetheless, she had no reservations about issuing her opinions first.
“I felt, at the time, disrespected. I had been invited by the organization to be the facilitator. I was the one with the expertise.”
While it was an unrelated conflict of interest that later forced me to withdraw from the panel, I was relieved to be free from the ideas and suggestions posed by this vocal and assertive young person. I felt, at the time, disrespected. I had been invited by the organization to be the facilitator. I was the one with the expertise. And, if I’m being honest, it offended me that a person so much younger would talk over someone thirty years her senior.
In the years since I have come to accept my misinterpretation of the situation. Although, truth be told, thinking back on the exchange still irks me. Armed with hindsight 20/20, I know that this was about my boomer biases and misinterpretation of her intentions. Her behavior certainly felt inappropriate at the time, but again, with the benefit of hindsight, one could argue that it wasn’t rudeness but simply my discomfort with her method of participation.
There are two takeaways here.
Navigating generational pushback at work
First, our perception is not necessarily indicative of what is happening. Perception is subjective. My reality was not her reality. While my feelings were valid and worthy of consideration, my assumption about her intent was off base.
Millennials aren’t necessarily trying to take over the team when they behave assertively. This is simply how many of them engage and communicate. They are accustomed to helping chart the course when aboard the ship. Her input may have been merely participatory, not mutinous, and looking at these situations through the lens of generational differences reveals that we often wholly misinterpret one another.
Second, we are all human and fallible. The entire point of this book is to improve our understanding of each other and embrace our differences so that the workplace will be better for all. But stating that intention and living it as reality are two different things. Saying it is easy. Doing it can be difficult. But we must try. We must try until it becomes our habit. We are deeply attached to our old habits and overcoming them takes work.
This kind of reflection isn’t easy, neither is deference and accommodation. You must work against your own biases and be willing to make sacrifices toward mutual accommodation. But the truth is that many people have been making these sacrifices, just less equitably, all along. Remember, Gen Xers have been keeping their heads down to accommodate boomers for years. Millennials are often routinely working on teams that fail to accommodate their differences. Compromise should be equitable—that’s the whole point of a compromise—and we won’t achieve real equity unless we all actively listen to each other.
Leading a multi-generational workforce
As a boomer steeped in a long tradition of deference to authority, I sometimes just want them to do as they’re told. But toiling to make them simply do as they are told would only end in a Pyrrhic victory at best. I could get their compliance, but I would never get their commitment. Of course, that’s not how they see things. They are simply playing by a different set of rules.
The younger generations see collaboration and discussion as ways to get things done quickly. They may be puzzled and frustrated that I won’t just sit down and talk with them so they can get back to work. This makes total sense if you accept that, from their view, I am impeding the process. They have a collaborative worldview in which all team members are respected and given a voice. In their view, it is me that is the problem. Sometimes, I have come to begrudgingly admit, they are not wrong.
“To get along, we must all recognize our own biases as biases. Doing so prevents you from automatically interpreting differences as deficiencies.”
To get along, we must all recognize our own biases as biases. Doing so prevents you from automatically interpreting differences as deficiencies. Compromise and deference will never make sense, especially to team leaders, until you can see things from the other perspective. In fact, managers that think they are right shouldn’t compromise. But you better make sure you are right and not just biased. Commitment from team members comes through open dialogue with everyone, regardless of their generational cohort.
Sometimes, managers cannot and should not cater to what the team wants. What we want isn’t always what we need. An experienced boomer leading a team of very young millennials or Gen Z graduates may need to implement a hierarchical structure with such green recruits. This isn’t necessarily about the manager’s generational bias so much as what the team needs.
On the other hand, a team of slightly older millennials with a few years of experience under their belts might benefit from being run more democratically since they have the knowledge and experience to govern themselves. Regardless of the generational cohort, the secret to managing is to adapt your behavior to the needs of the team and team members.
Chris DeSantis is an independent organizational behavior practitioner, speaker, podcaster, and author, with over thirty-five years of experience working with clients in professional services firms both domestically and internationally. Over the past fifteen years, he has been invited to speak on generational issues in the workplace at hundreds of the leading U.S. law and accounting firms, as well as many of the major insurance and pharma companies. His new book is Why I Find You Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work (Amplify Publishing, May 3, 2022). Learn more at cpdesantis.com.
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