Why Generations Clash at Work

Don't just blame the Millennials. The struggle between the status quo and young up-and-comers is ageless, and important.

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By Steve Tobak

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Maybe it's me, but all the hoopla over Millennials being different rubs me the wrong way. I guess I don't particularly care for broad characterizations of generations of people. Some fit the stereotype and some don't. We're all unique individuals, are we not?

That said, I have noticed some common themes among young up-and-comers. Perhaps I was the same way when I was their age. That was a long time ago but I do remember feeling that my older superiors didn't see the world the way I did. And I was right; they didn't.

My managers saw the world differently because they had something I didn't have: experience in it. They knew things I didn't know. One of the things they knew was how to motivate people. And they knew how to motivate me. I wasn't aware of that at the time, but looking back, I can see it clearly. And they did a good job of it, at least to a point.

It turns out that I brought something unique to the equation myself: a lack of constraints. I saw things differently than they did because I had no preconceived notions of how an organization should be run or how my career should progress. I wanted fewer constraints. I wanted to move faster than they would allow.

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So when I ran up against the status quo brick wall, I simply moved onward ... and upward. Looking back on it, I can see that I was either ahead of my time – a Gen Yer in a Baby Boomer's body – or more likely that this is exactly the way it's supposed to be. I can also see that this perceived generational conflict is both recurring … and resolvable.

The answer lies in the concept of WIIFM (What's In It For Me). Marketers see WIIFM as a means to motivate groups of customers to make purchase decisions, but the same concept applies to motivating employees or anyone else, for that matter. It's simply a method for getting inside people's heads and determining what they want and need.

When I was a young engineer, my bosses understood my WIIFM: an insatiable desire for responsibility, ownership, accomplishment, and recognition in the form of promotions and compensation increases. The relationship was symbiotic until I felt that I was no longer growing at a fast enough pace and the company's organizational structure and processes were simply too inflexible to meet my needs.

Now, that was back in the 80s when corporations had not yet become the lean, mean competitive machines they are today. Modern companies have fewer layers of management, decisions are made at lower levels, and there is a great deal more flexibility. And yet, here we are, in a perceived generational crisis. Again.

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Clearly, this is exactly the way it's supposed to happen. It's the job of experienced leaders to develop company cultures and processes to replicate success and enable growth. And it is the job of up-and-comers to challenge the new status quo and, if they can't get what they want, to move on in search of their WIIFM.

The reason why that natural tension has to exist is because no organization is infinitely elastic or adaptable. Without structure and processes, at some point, adaptability will cross over into anarchy. The optimum operating point for any company – if there is such a thing – is achieved by a leadership culture that's always testing its own status quo and at least open to listening to the WIIFM of its young up-and-comers.

This concept – that a perceived generational conflict is a repetitive phenomenon – represents an important lesson for all of us.

For young up-and-comers, your role is to challenge the boundaries and test the limits. And when your needs aren't being met, to move on and carve your own path. But don't expect management to cater to you wherever you go. That's not your role or theirs. They have to find a balance. You don't … at least not yet.

As for successful executives and business leaders, your role is to never forget that you were once that brash young upstart who succeeded by taking risks and pushing the envelope. The second you think you've got the magic formula to success and all you have to do is turn the crank, that's when you become the status quo.

Related: How Successful People Make Their Own Luck

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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