Bridging The Generational Divide in The Workplace


Introduction

Before we start, let me just give a clue when  Not to read this article; Simply if you are a startup, or you are a single- generation operation. But even in this case, you will need it soon, sooner than you think, when you start to expend and rely on people less senior than your pioneering  generation!

Then, just a note about this article’s readership:

  • If you are a senior who has a say in some development  operation and want some smoothening in its flow, or
  • You can also be a junior, and you are looking for better environment to work with or wanting to increase your awareness about the Best Selection for Your Employer.

Now, let’s get started.

it’s everywhere from family to communities of all types, so why not businesses? Deny it or admit it, it’s inseparable from modernity and change mankind is witnessing today. We are talking here about The Generational Divide.

We, Technology People, lie in the focus of change in everything that is happening today,  tomorrow and maybe till  some sort of apocalypse takes over human civilization. “Generations” in anything we do or make are counting faster than ever, so why not counting in “Us”?  We cross generations in the workplace faster than any industry or any other social structure one would think of. We, therefore, are more exposed to the backfire of Generational Divide than all other social structures.

In fact, I’m one of those who saw the phenomena hiding behind a lot of issues in the industry over the last decade . With the accelerating industry pace in the recent few years, the years of the Digital Transformation, I think that the divide is getting wider and deeper, with all the deterrents  that can easily hit the workplace and negatively impact quality of our products, the wellbeing of our people and hence the wellness of our businesses.

In this treatise, I’m presenting my experience about   Generational Divide in the development workplace, the way it affects our teams and processes and finally disclose some of the remedies that I’ve successfully tried to lessen or even eliminate any unwanted effects caused by it.

Defining Generations at The Technology Workplace

Let’s begin where we should: Defining those “generations” that may divide or engage!

Demographically speaking, we have a generation Y, the cohort born during the 80’s and the early  90’s. Then came Generation Z, people born  near (or after) millennium. Generation X are those seniors before the two. This is a pure demographic thing, just a base for our classification.

From a technology perspective, the natural distribution implies  that we have a minority of X people in service (I’m one of those!), a minority from Z (They are now  in the pipeline, but maybe they have already informally joined  before they graduate) and a majority from Y cohort. X People are those who witnessed the pre-web era, they usually designed, wrote and implemented clerical type applications run by specialized clerks behind the screens, usually in a waterfall development fashion. The Y Cohort started the challenge of writing web-based applications run by anyone who can be a probable beneficiary of the  app, most likely using some agile method, with mobile devices replacing desktop screens gradually. The  Z cult is just joining  in an age of data and apps mobility and agility.

You can see now how the demographic  and the technology perspective intersect.

Now, to simplify reference throughout the discussion , we will redefine “generations” as those three cohorts we usually  encounter in the development workplace:

  • X People: Pre-web Culture, but that of course does imply “pre-web knowledge”,
  • Y  People: Web culture Higher-ups and leaders and/or  more senior staff, and
  • Z  People: Post-web or Digital Age Culture. These are the less seniors from the Y group who are either  lesser ranked  leaders and/or  in-cubical developers, joined gradually by the pure demographically Z flow coming from education. We will call these, collectively, generation Z.

While mentalities, knowledge and  guts may diverse in the one workplace, one thing remains constant for all: The Challenges, and that’s exactly y where things can start to harmonize.

Well and  Good, so where is that divide, indeed!



The Differences

Differences in generations are simply differences in not only knowledge and experience, but and more importantly in psychological drivers and the level of guts (energy)  that one  has. Actually,  knowledge is the least to cause a gap or a divide, because it acquirable at any age with required depth, if the acquirer is eager to. Examples of X people who are still even technology influencers are there. The list is long, so let it not  drift us from the main course of discussion just to prove a well-proven point.

The real differences in drivers  come in two areas:

  • Enablement: I mean here desire to feel enabled which is in many cases sought by the less senior, and is usually apposed, or at least not very welcomed, from the more senior end.
  • Autonomy: Here we also  mean desire to be autonomous, same as passion for enablement.

According to modern theory on motivation, these two drivers are essential for motivating workers in cognitive work.  A good foundation of academic work and field research enforces this sometimes neglected or denied fact for the favor of older illusive motivations. It happens also that both of the two drivers represent  a “demand” for the Z cult, whereas some (and a good some actually) of the X’s and maybe Y’s still think of that as an extra that may lead to a state of chaos because  of lack of experience and/or discipline in the Z’s. The gap is dug deep when X’s and Y’s disregard the effect of these drivers.

Rest assured that  the lack of consensus on these two tenets is the  source of many troubles inside development teams and factories, which hide behind that feeling of belittlement  hence disloyalty  between the younger ones.

Want Some Evidence?

I will stop here to give two cases from the real world that prove the point.

First one is a finding of my own, which I used to come across when I do what I call Experience Mining in my leadership lectures for practicing leaders (X’s and Y’s), to explore what concepts are governing the audience’s minds before taking them to a change, if we need to.  “How do you see the younger  people under your command, what’s your overall judgment about them?” is a question I used to shoot. At least 95% of the answers contain negative judgments like:  Arrogant, Undisciplined, Unmanageable! I used to use the answers to prove one fact to the audience: That happens because our biggest mistake is that we think of them as “Us”. They come from different times, with new ideas, ambitions and drivers. We have to adapt, guys.

The second case is what Robert C. Martin says. Uncle Bob has actually coined what I call as Martin’s Law for Software People. He says that In our industry, we are doubled in number every five years with people of less than five years of experience. Uncle Bob adds that this a reason for the lack of discipline that is accumulating in the crucial process of development. I agree, Uncle Bob, with your deep finding in its first part, but the consequences is where I differ. It’s not Lack of discipline, Bob! I take it as Immaturity that will cure with time. It’s us who must understand what’s new about the new comers, re-engineer that so they become a huge source of energy, not chaos, fed into our process every year.

That’s the way we, X-Y people, contribute to the enigma. The other part of the story is the way the Z’s contribute to it.



The Other Side of the Enigma: The Z’s

Well, they come with expectations and ambitions and we have to fulfill good part of that, then  re-engineer the younger people to help them achieve the rest, But!

New comers sometimes overdo it, that’s true. Some of the Z cults feel the market need and do overestimate or misinterpret their employers demand on their services. This becomes a cause for misbehavior like arrogance, true lack of discipline and self-centeredness.

Thus  all parties carry some  responsibility in raising the issue in the workplace. But, with some wisdom implemented, the bigger load  in resolving the enigma lies on the shoulders of the X and Y people. They have to provide the fertile soil to grow something good for organization to reap.

Before we discuss solutions and responsibilities, let’s first see the  impact of the divide on the workplace.

The Impact in The Workplace

Anyone in this business can write this section as good as I’ll do, and maybe better, I’m sure. We all witnessed it, just be frank!

Today, the Generational Divide is tacitly impairing the work environment which is comprised of a  majority of Z’s  controlled by those  Y’s and maybe a minority of X’s. You can feel it first in the churn rate. The younger leave either to younger organizations and sometimes to their own or their colleagues’ startups. They want them: Autonomy and Enablement, and that’s where they think they can get them.

And if they stay, that would be on the expense of their wellbeing.  You can notice it in the nagging and discomfort, absenteeism and lack of loyalty you may observe there.

One more thing  that gets degraded without relating that to the environment anomalies is quality. The quality that  a human produces, especially in cognitive work, is  in fact is a reflection of his/her wellbeing. If you want better products, use happy people, nothing can be said simpler than that.

If things get worse, the organization experiences what can be called Cultural Silos. Whereby you may find loosely coupled teams  with different views to things and complete lack of collaboration and integration. This happens when the “wiser” layers of the X’s and higher Y’s don’t engage to form that backbone of soft influence that all people can gather  around.

Last, but most dangerous, is that operating under these conditions long enough actually “brands” the organization for being “Old fashioned”, sometimes “Gloomy” or “Schoolish”, as they describe it when they leave it. In many cases, I heard those younger ones saying that they feel like school boys/girls working with this or that organization.  “We are always told what to do, and how to do it and we are rarely asked for our opinions and suggestions”. Just that!

This is really dangerous, and is becoming more dangerous as the digital transformation is hitting the industry with its winds of change.



A Shakedown is Needed

A plan to make sure that you don’t suffer Generational Divide negatives in your organization is needed. As I say, repeatedly,  this must be a good part of a people transformation strategy in confrontation to the digital transformation change. Here are some experience which I’ve seen of value.

Before anything, it’s a Mature Leadership everywhere in the organization. A leadership that is enabled and is brave enough to enable others. Enabled Y’s and Z’s, with just enough observation to what they do, and how good they do it, supported by coaching on how to improve it, is a key point in alleviating the divide’s negative impact on the organization.

Then comes the concept of Autonomous Teams. Teams that are asked for solutions and guided to get them have been found to perform far more cohesively and efficiently than teams that are imperatively assigned roles as individuals.  X’s and Y’s stay there just to facilitate and provide help on demand.

If you get the right Enablement &  Autonomy in place, then be sure that you have bridged the divide, at least by 90%. The people are happier and the operation is smoother. You Everybody is a winner!

A crucial point that most X’s and Y’s Leave behind is Engagement. Higher-ups usually find themselves more with numbers, not people.  This, from a modern organizational perspective, is a disaster. Gradually it hurts the loyalty of the Z’s. In many cases, you find them asking questions about issues crucial to their careers like the company’s vision to the future and facts about the wellness of the business and they  find one answer, explicitly or implicitly, “That’s none of your business”. It has been proven from the field as well as research that workers need to talk, listen and be listened to. X’s and Y’s have to have room for that on their schedules. Time and whereabouts are becoming no more barriers. Webcasts, Webinars and even videoed messages are tools of the trade that must  exploited. Live face to face events, however simple and economic,  remain at the front row of the tool kit. It’s bounded of course by the organization size and budget. Feedbacks and polls on issues of specific interest and importance to the Z’s , answered back from X’s or Y’s with  attention and care are also important to build a culture of conversation between generations.  In all that,  prominent and creative  teams in Internal Marketing  and People’ Departments are the key players.

However, the reaction between these elements will not start inside organization unless you get the right  catalyst on top of all things. That is a culture of Mutual Respect, no matter the age, the rank, or whatever. Not only  to pay Respect,  but also expressing it! This single word is the cultural magic that without it nothing will work . Declare it as your number  one value all the way through the business. It’s the impenetrable Business Constitution that bonds all into one body.

Finally, but never less important, it’s the proper selection of the Y and Z elements  to join your forces. Most of us pay attention more to things like technical competence and experience together with some soft attributes that ensure they will fit happily in their jobs. That’s okay, but what I’d like to emphasize here is to design your interviews (and probing period) to discover those who price the number one business value as I explained before, Mutual Respect. If you fail to discover that, and maybe discover  it later that they can’t keep the value, dismiss at once, this is not only intolerable but even uncorrectable and toxic. Period.

In fact, one of the major design criteria in building People Re-engineering whichI have started sculpting recently as a complete people strategy  for development organization is  birding this gap and disarming its side effects on the development process. This will happen automatically if you design your people strategy based on that people re-engineering theme. It’s a good idea to go and take a look  after you read this. Here is a link of the first of a series of articles on the the strategy:

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Now let me wrap this section up by the statement I made in Italics in the beginnings of this treatise: While mentalities, knowledge and  guts may diverse, one thing remains constant for all: The Challenges, and that’s exactly y where things can start to harmonize.



And Finally, The Cultural Touch

One important factor we need to regard before we conclude this treatise is the effect of the  prevailing social culture in the considered community.

Actually, some parts of the world still consider age a major determinant  in shaping  relations between individuals. This can be a matter of cultural heritage or other specific doctrines, where the relation gets very “parental” in nature not only within the family or general social boundaries  but even in the business workplace. On the other side of the world, this relation enjoys more freedom and looks more flat than hierarchical. This, again, is carried over from the general social structures to the business domain.

What I can say here, from my personal findings over years, is that the gap between these two cultural worlds is getting narrower than ever before, due to the smashing effect of globalization. This effect takes a good magnification ratio when you transform the case to the  technology space, where people are very much shaped by similar educational and cognitive characteristics. That makes free the ideas I exchanged here, to a great extent, from that social influence.

For honesty’s sake, however , the Generational Gap could be more challenging to bridge in those more “conservative” social systems, because of that parental nature of social relations. This actually puts more burden on the shoulders of the  X’s and Y’s to provide the understanding and wisdom to reshape it.

Conclusion

Well, we have covered the generational divide for those who may have experienced it. As said before, if you are a startup, or near one-generation operation and you don’t feel it now, you will feel it in the future, closer than you think. Note that the differences in technology  generations are getting “thinner” than the chronological or demographic ones. Technology is revolutionized may more than once in one aspect or another every couple of years and that may, in turn, foster the creation of new generations in knowledge while not in age. Think of it! Consider your generational map, then try to spot the divide and implement some of suggestion to bridge it, or get inspired to develop something of your own. You will get smoother, happier and wiser operation.