Generational Stereotypes Are BS – Here’s What to Do Instead

by | Oct 31, 2016 | approachable leadership

Generational stereotypes are bad for business.

Our culture is obsessed with generational stereotypes. Seems like there is a new article every day giving us some “great new insight” into how to deal with the millennials (and now Generation Z) creeping into our companies. Here’s my insight.

Most of it is bullshit.

People are people. Yes, younger people look at the world through a different lens than those of us who’ve been around a little (or a lot) longer and experienced a little (or a lot) more. But deep down we are way more alike than we are different. All of us want the same things. We want to be engaged. And to be challenged. We want to be respected. To be valued.

Generational stereotypes create unfair labels.

Jessica Kriegel’s book Unfairly Labeled dives into the problem with generational stereotypes. Kriegel earned a Ph.D. from Drexel University in 2013. But when she first set out to write her doctoral dissertation, she hit a roadblock. Originally, she planned to defend the “unique attributes of the millennial generation.” Then she discovered that there weren’t any.

“As I was reading all of the different books, research articles, and peer-reviewed studies on generational difference, I started to realize how much contradiction there is in the literature. …I realized it’s all kind of made up. There’s not a lot of hard data that supports any of these assumptions. It’s all anecdotal, case studies, research studies with 200 people that they apply to the broader population. And it’s all really damaging.”

Generational stereotypes do more harm than good.

The irony is interesting. Leaders often research how to better handle certain generations. They do this because they want to be good leaders. They want to understand their teammates better – figure out what makes them tick. But unfortunately, a lot of the time this research does more harm than good.

“They’re creating a judgement about what their employee is going to be. And not getting to know the employee in front of them. Because they think they’ve already got them figured.”

There aren’t any “secret decoder rings” for people. As soon as you lump people into a bucket, and make assumptions about them based on whatever category you put them in, you are screwed. That’s not just true of generational stereotypes. It is true of racial, cultural, religious, gender, and any other bucket you might choose.

Here are 3 things to focus on instead of generational stereotypes:

  1. Focus on “differences” – not “generations.” Most companies don’t provide enough individualized praise, feedback, and coaching. This is one of the biggest complaints employees make in our engagement research. And it’s true across every generation. Don’t pigeon-hole employees into generational boxes. Instead, focus on each person as a unique individual. People get demoralized when they feel like they aren’t valued. But they will run through a brick wall for you if they believe you care about them as a person.
  2. Embrace individualized feedback. Take an active interest in the development of your employees. As a result, folks will be engaged and happy to go above and beyond. And they’ll remain that way. By the way, providing mentoring opportunities is a terrific way to help both the mentor and mentee feel valued. There is nothing more motivating to us than the belief we are growing and making a contribution in our lives. Again, this has nothing to do with generational differences. But everything to do with individual uniqueness. And each person’s desire to make progress in his or her life.
  3. Focus on constraints. Don’t structure your business to appeal to Generations X, Y or Z. This just makes it more likely you’ll implement practices or technologies that can kill individual motivation. (Even if the generation du jour loves the new program.) Focus on bottlenecks and friction in your business instead of generational stereotypes. What are the things that frustrate people every day? This moves attention to where it is most needed. Each individual (no matter when they were born) will come up with practices they’re comfortable with. And all the while, you can be reassured that business is moving forward.

Click here to check out Kriegal’s interview with Wharton Business School at UPenn. And learn more about why generational stereotypes are bad for business.