Engage or resist? Leading across generations


"Shoveling coal at the gates of hell!"

Added on 10 October 2016 by Colin Williams

Leadership across generations

A senior executive with whom I was discussing the challenges of leading a major organizational change recently brought up the challenge of leading across generations. This is not a new theme; at Ashridge we have been running an ongoing research project into Baby Boomers, Generation Y and the Millennials for a number of years and so are aware of some of the differences in motivation and behavior. However, the executive identified a specific cut-off point which brings a rather broad discussion into sharp focus. 

We were exploring how to deal with people who adopt the role of ‘victim’ in organizational change. These are people who (perhaps justifiably) believe they have no influence and no contribution to make. They are likely to either actively resist the changes being proposed or at best, be apathetic and put no energy in to making them succeed. The distinction he was making is between people who are on the company ‘defined benefits’ pension scheme and those who are not. There is a clear age distinction here of course as virtually everyone signed up for these schemes until organizations stopped offering them.

His argument was that the attractiveness of the schemes meant that the employee would tolerate almost anything ("except perhaps shoveling coal at the gates of hell!") the company asked them to do, as leaving was simply too unattractive from a financial security point of view. The employees do not feel obliged to commit to the changes nor will they get out of the way. The culture is often such that skillful opposition and sabotaging is difficult to identify and deal with.

The younger generation, in this case those not on the ‘defined benefits’ pension scheme were in a position to be more selective. If they felt they were being made a victim, they were quite likely to take back control of their lives by leaving and moving to another job. Much of the literature about leading change and transformation focuses on how to deal with ‘resistors’: what strategies and tactics leaders can use to breakdown or minimize the levels of resistance. Perhaps it is now time to refocus on the younger employees – to understand how they may respond to or engage with organizational change? 

  1. A sense of purpose. Do people believe they are doing something important? Something that they personally feel is worthwhile and meaningful. It is a good idea to allow people to discover this for themselves if possible. The ‘corporate story’ of why a change is important may connect with them but it may not. Some examples of how people find a sense of purpose are; ‘will it make people’s lives safer, more comfortable, and more rewarding? Will it improve quality or customer service? Will it use less natural resource? Will it lead to less pollution? Will it help me learn and grow?’
  2. Flexibility - in the broadest sense. ‘Will it give me more control over how I spend my time?’ This could include the possibility to take a sabbatical. It could be the ability to finish early two days a week to take part in a social project. It could be to accommodate childcare.
  3. Excitement. ‘Will I find it challenging, stimulating, fun or rewarding?’
  4. Learning and development. ‘How will I learn through this process?’ This could be pragmatic as will it make me more employable on the job market or easier to promote internally. Alternatively, it could be more along the lines of self-actualization – ‘will I get some real personal growth out of the process?’

The areas of focus which I suggest are important for younger employees, are of course important to many older employees too – the question is how important are they – vital or ‘nice to have’?  

A challenge some experienced leaders have is taking younger people's priorities seriously. I have heard comments such as, “do they want a job or a holiday?” or “we are not a social services charity” or “we all have children, deal with them out of working hours”. The consequences of not taking the priorities seriously could ultimately be losing our best young talent and retaining people reluctantly shoveling coal at the gates of hell.

Colin Williams teaches on our open programs the Senior Executive Program and Leading Change and Growth