As someone who is very interested in how leaders can build and maintain an ethical culture based on shared values, one of the challenges that is often raised is how (and IF) this is possible in a work environment comprising multiple generations. In order to get some answers, I talked to Bryan Yackulic, the Assistant Director of the Chartered Leadership Fellow (CLF) program at The American College of Financial Services, who has researched this topic extensively.
It is not uncommon for members of older generations to complain that members of younger generations are not as ethical or committed to doing things the right way. Where do you think that this criticism comes from? Do you think it is true?
The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Research shows that millennials tend be much more transparent in their communications and much more open about their personal values than other generations. They increasingly want to work for companies who share these values, and working for a company with a cause is becoming more important than the paycheck they earn. This can be off-putting, especially with older generations who tend to be more reticent about sharing personal information in the workplace. Millennials tend place great emphasis on corporate social responsibility and are the first generation to grow up alongside it. While the rise of social media has contributed to the perception that millennials are narcissistic and only care about themselves, it has also created an opportunity for millennials to highlight companies who succeed or fail in regards to social responsibility by using social media websites like Twitter. Consumers, irrespective of generation, are increasingly demanding more information about where and how products are made, where profits are going, and what companies are doing to benefit society. As more millennials continue to enter the workforce, the need for companies to be committed to social responsibility is becoming the rule rather than the exception.
Yackulic makes some great points, especially about the role of social media. As an example, in 2010 an employee from Best Buy, a large electronics retailer, made a series of a videos posted on YouTube in which he spoofed the sales practices and environment at fictional electronics company (which was easily identifiable as Best Buy). The videos went ‘viral’ and provoked an interesting debate as to whether and how the employee should be punished by the organization. A debate, of course, which was played out on social media. In a statement, Best Buy said that, “this is an important situation for us because it involved balancing our social media guidelines with a commitment to creating a supportive environment for our employees.”
It is easy to see how people could (and did) assess the employee’s actions along generational lines. While research shows that older generations value ‘loyalty’ to their workplace, this virtue is not as prized by younger generations (or at least it is not understood in the same way). More on that below…
One of the issues that I have heard mentioned by field leaders is that it is difficult to talk about ‘values’ across the generations since different generations have different interpretations of the terms, such as ‘respect’, ‘loyalty’, etc. How can field leaders conduct helpful conversations about values across generations? Any tips or traps?
Field leaders who are able to better understand the different generations and why each group is a certain way can tailor their communication. Understanding the different preferred communication styles, motivations, and values of each generation will go a long way to help reduce conflict and resistance.
When communicating with Millennials, it is important to understand that they value transparency, and seek to understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’. When communicating with these individuals, making sure they understand why things are done a specific way or why they need to follow certain values can be just as important as the values themselves. This can be challenging to leaders who are used to being ‘obeyed’ without much in the way of discussion and do not see ‘persuasion’ as part of their job description. In addition, millennials tend to prefer structure and encourage feedback. Providing examples of how to handle certain situations will help them assimilate to the company values.
It would be a trap to use the same communication style with all generations, or communicate the way you would prefer to be communicated with. It is a mistake to assume that what worked with one group will work for the others, and in order to effectively communicate, a field leader needs to spend time getting to know each individual. Generational conflict has been around since the beginning of time, and is not going anywhere. All leaders need to understand Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials in order to be successful across generations.
Again, Yackulic makes some good points. I am reminded of some of the challenges created by the practice of mentorship. In many organizations, mentorship is translated to mean that, “I am going to tell you exactly how I became successful and then guide you through the process that worked for me.” If successful, effective mentorship along these lines created a series of ‘mini-me’s’ whose behaviors and practices (and successes) mirror those of their leader/mentor.
Of course, the obvious problem with this approach is that there may be individuals who have tremendous capacity for success, but will achieve it in a different way on account of their personality, style and skill set. When we view mentorship as mere ‘replication’ we miss out on the potential of others – and often times the people we miss out on are people of a non-dominant race, gender or age.
But, I think that people often suspect that it is not possible to mentor people with whom they do not share important commonalities of experience or identity characteristics. This is a valid concern, but I think that is mostly unwarranted – successful people know a lot of about success – both in terms of their own experiences and in terms of the experience of others they have observed over the course of their careers. Passing along these insights and offering advice only after asking questions about the values, goals and concerns of their mentee (and then listening in a open way) can be incredibly beneficial to people new in the business. There are many roads to success and a good mentor can help each individual their particular path. Moreover, you will reap the abundant rewards that come from diverse perspectives. More on that below…
(3) Are there are any advantages in terms of creating an ethical business culture from having a multi-generation work environment?
There are several advantages to a multi-generation work environment in regards to ethics, most importantly the diversity of different perspectives. A millennial employee can benefit from learning how and why things are done from a more experienced coworker, just as a boomer can benefit from a millennial challenging the status quo. Gaining insight and recommendations from different generations can help an organization create an ethical culture. Having members of all generations participate in establishing the ethical values and standards will help create buy-in and limit generational problems that may develop if only one group is involved. Ethical values often come from the top of the company, but need to be followed and supported throughout the organization to be effective.
Lastly, in order for values to be upheld an organization needs to support the values in issues of generational conflict. For example, if a value is teamwork, a millennial should not be excluded from participating due to lack of experience.
Thank you to Bryan for sharing his experience and wisdom on this topic. For more information about Bryan, please click here and for more information on CLF Program at The American College, please click here.