Guest Post: Generation, Age and Leadership: Differences Matter

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We have entered into a remarkable period where there are four (soon to be five) generations working side by side in the workforce. As the result of dwindling numbers of new entrants within the workforce and older workers remaining employed longer, multigenerational cohorts are increasingly working side by side in various work and leadership roles. Each generation brings unique perceptions, values and expectations to their organizations. Understanding these differences is vital because they create the potential for both synergy and conflict. How can we use an understanding of these differences to reduce conflict, maximize employee potential and create a more effective work environment?

generational-diversityA vital first step is to understand how younger and older workers differ in their approach to leadership and the emotional drivers that motivate them. Management Research Group (www.mrg.com) recently completed a study of the leadership approach of 41,000 executives, managers, and individual contributors in the United States. In this study, Silents (born 1925-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X’s (1965-1976), and Generation Y’s (1977-1990) were compared on the 22 leadership practices measured by the Leadership Effectiveness Analysis™.  Additionally, the personal motivations of a subset of these participants (N=3,000) were explored using the 17 emotional drivers measured by the Individual Directions Inventory™. What did we find?

When it came to leadership, older leaders were more likely to take a more conservative problem solving approach and focus on relationships and team playing, including greater cooperation, seeking out the opinions of others, and leading with empathy. Younger leaders were more likely to lead with excitement and passion, taking charge forcefully and focusing on the immediate production of results.

With regard to emotional drivers, older leaders were more motivated by opportunities for intimate affiliation and the personal expression of feelings. In contrast, younger leaders were much more motivated by opportunities to attract positive regard from others, and master their environments.They had less need for stability and were attracted to situations where they could be in positions of power, push themselves to higher levels of achievement, and compete with others.

Are these differences due to generational differences (different experiences growing up), or maturational differences (difference due to the passage of time)?  We don’t know yet, but preliminary evidence suggests that age plays a greater role than generation here.

Differences in expectations, desires, beliefs and behaviors can lead to misunderstandings, conflicted relationships and unproductive environments. However, we can use a greater understanding of these differences to increase team performance, employee engagement and the retention of valuable workers.  To learn more, see MRG’s white papers on the role of gender, generation and culture on effective leadership development at www.mrg.com/education-resources/brochures/.

Rob is a leading researcher and consultant in the areas of diversity and leadership, cross-cultural issues, and the development of effective leaders in a global economy. He works with organizations around the world to help identify the leadership practices most likely to lead to organizational success in a given industry, culture, and context. For the past fourteen years, he has been the Vice President of Research for Management Research Group, an international leader in creating high-quality assessment tools.

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