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“How dare I be a millennial.”
That’s the thought that bitterly went through my head the first time I learned about the stereotypes that come with my age group (those born between 1981 and 1996). I was just a few months out of college and was asked to attend a work conference. There was a wide selection of education sessions, and I chose to join one on the impact technology had on the industry I served at the time. I didn’t notice it at first, but I was the outlier in the room as most of the audience was at least 15 years older than me. In an instant, we went from discussing technology to having the room filled with chatter about concerns of millennials entering the workforce.
“Millennials are lazy.”
“Millennials are disloyal and they’re killing industries.”
The complaints filled the room. “How do they not see me? Do I look older to them?” I thought as they continued. They went on for a good five minutes before the speaker finally moved back on topic.
Being fresh out of college and eager to learn, I was disheartened to realize that the people around me from whom I hoped to gain wisdom would label me with generational stereotypes before ever giving me a chance. I felt attacked and lost a lot of respect for the speaker and the professionals seated around me.
I thought about my workplace and considered if my superiors thought of me in the same light. In reality, none of the stereotypes they mentioned defined me (the only labels I’ve heard that do fit me are that I like to get feedback and I desire flexibility in my workplace). I’m a dedicated worker, incredibly loyal and know from my own experience that people must work hard to get to where they want to go. After this experience, I realized that I needed to work twice as hard to prove these stereotypes didn’t apply to me.
THE REALITY FOR LEADERS
All of us at some point have felt the need to prove ourselves against a label—whether it be based on our age, race, ethnicity, gender or some other construct. It’s not a great feeling, and working double-time to convince people we don’t fit the stereotypical mold is a misuse of our energy. Leaders are tasked with making sure that energy isn’t misused in this way; they’re responsible for developing a workplace where all generations can work together in unison.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of moderating a webinar led by author, speaker and Inc. columnist Ryan Jenkins. His presentation, “Next-Gen Leadership: Proven Strategies to Engage Millennials and Gen Z at Work,” was among my favorite webinars we’ve had on Leadercast NOW because of how critical cross-generational leadership is to the emerging workforce.
Due to longer lifespans and delayed retirement, by the year 2020, five generations will work alongside one another in the workplace for the first time in history. More than ever, leaders need to know how to unite their teams despite generational differences. And for young leaders like myself and the Gen Zers coming behind me who have, for the most part, only collaborated with our own age groups, we need to learn how to work alongside a variety of ages.
In yesterday’s webinar, Ryan mentioned research that found that 52 percent of workers say they’re least likely to get along with someone from another generation, and 62 percent of Generation Z anticipates challenges working with baby boomers and Gen X.
Leaders of all age groups are in for a challenge over the coming years. We will need to learn how to communicate effectively with one another, generate new ideas together and navigate change as a team. The greatest thing all of us can do is to have an open mind and never settle on doing things just because they’re the way we’ve always done them, Ryan pointed out yesterday. “A ‘this is always how we’ve done it’ mindset is a slippery slope to irrelevance,” he said. We need to prioritize the why over the way.
My advice to leaders is to be mindful of the stereotypes that exist for every generation, but approach everyone you work with as an individual. Don’t lump them together with any type of label. Take time to get to know your employees and give them a chance to show you their strengths and weaknesses without the additional pressure of needing to prove themselves against a stereotype. Listen for discriminative chatter and stop it in its tracks when you hear it. Commit to developing a workplace culture where all five generations feel comfortable with one another, talk freely and openly, and are well-represented across the organization as a whole.