My thoughts on the Harvard Business Review’s take on inter-generational issues

a team at work - y reaction to HBR article

My thoughts on the Harvard Business Review’s take on inter-generational issues

a team at work - y reaction to HBR article


The inter-generational divide in the workplace has become so pervasive that the Harvard Business Review is now writing about it. A recent article begins:

In a recent conversation with the HR leader of a Midwestern U.S.–based financial services company, she told us that older employees were confounded by the views and behaviors of Millennial and Gen Z employees, such as their insistence on remote working, “fickle” work styles, and unbridled honesty when work wasn’t going their way. Conversely, the younger set found the company veterans to be inflexible, uncreative, and often naïve in their willingness to take company leaders’ word at face value.

While I’m intrigued that HBR has jumped on this wagon train, creating a spotlight on the issue, I don’t agree with their suggestions of how it can be addressed.

A good definition of the “problem and promise” of age diversity

The article does a good job of identifying that there is, truly, a problem in the workplace. This problem creates less-than-optimal work conditions and business results. The result is an organization that isn’t working as well as it could and, in some cases, works less and less effectively as the problem isn’t addressed.

But it can be turned around and teams of differing ages can learn to respect one another:

Investing in understanding others’ different points of view creates common knowledge, which is the cornerstone of effective collaboration: It gives a group a frame of reference, allows them to interpret situations and decisions correctly, helps people understand one another better, and greatly increases efficiency.

Organizations should help people better understand one another, appreciating different perspectives and viewpoints, and uniting people in their common goals. But it’s in the proposed solutions that we start to lose steam. 

Solution #1: Build and Capitalize on a Shared Sense of Purpose

This first solution, creating a “shared sense of purpose,” is too theoretical, unless the organization is a nonprofit (and is truly mission-driven) or leadership is single-minded in their vision, which is why I take issue with them. That is, they don’t address the fundamental problems they’ve outlined earlier: that, fundamentally, the different generations don’t respect each other’s differing perspectives and viewpoints.

It seems that the authors believe that a shares sense of purpose will make the other issues evaporate. They’ve fallen into the trap of thinking everyone is in the same foxhole (to use a war analogy) and that, if we just give everyone a country to fight for, they’ll all unite and come out with guns blazing in the right direction.

This is based on research by McKinsey that showed “nearly two-thirds of U.S.-based employees we surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life.”

I’ve not seen that to be the case. Unless you’re talking to a nonprofit, where everyone is already united “for a cause,” it will be hard to convince younger employees that the greater cause of the business should be their cause, also. In that sense, I believe they’ve slightly missed the boat here, when it comes to contextualizing the “why” (a la Simon Sinek) for younger employees.

Solution #2: Use Team Launches to Highlight How Differences Matter

This solution, using “team launches” to talk about how people of different ages matter, appeals to the idea that employees of varying ages may have different areas of expertise and abilities. They recommend that every team member submit their thoughts on how they might contribute to the project at hand, and suggests that the most “trustworthy” person (who will act in the best-self-interests of all concerned) be in charge of allocating people resources.

This is a lofty ideal and one that I like. But it makes a lot of assumptions – first and foremost, that there are distinct projects like this all the time. There aren’t, for many teams.

In addition, I’m not sure that there is always an ideal person on the team to lead this charge, especially without specific training.

And, finally, the problem is actually a much larger one than age differences: human talent isn’t maximized at all right now. This has to do with the siloing of functions, as well as the reality of selfish or paranoid managers (not wanting to share their people, or feeling threatened, etc.), and other somewhat political issues that exist in larger organizations.

What I applaud about this approach is that it feels collaborative: everyone is offering to do what they want to do and what they do best. And this is as it should be.

 Solution #3: Launch and Sustain a Reverse Mentoring Program

Reverse Mentoring programs are wonderful. But they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Not everyone wants to be part of this type of program, and not everyone knows how to do it well. Unless there’s training or coaching that comes with it, and it’s made universal (or embedded into the culture of an organization), it will only benefit those who have the emotional intelligence to do it and/or who go out of their way to become educated and to engage. And isn’t this a self-fulfilling prophecy of who will be successful in an organization?

In a worst case scenario, it becomes a popularity contest. Again, this type of thought exercise, from an academic perspective, is interesting; seeing how organizations really work a “live” situation is where the rubber hits the road. There’s so much fear and politicking going on that even the best intentions can be ruined by reality.

I do agree with the HBR writers that this issue is critical, and leaders should address this quickly. 

Are you wondering how big the inter-generational problem is at your organization? Let’s talk about finding that out as a first step.

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