Saturday, July 1, 2017

Generational Differences: Myth or Reality?

Traditionalists (otherwise known as Matures or the Silent Generation), those born before 1946, are hard-working and detail-oriented. They are disciplined and like consistency and uniformity. They are stable and loyal and, at work, they are concerned about healthcare and retirement benefits and possibly being discriminated against because of their age. Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, were indulged as children and are generally optimistic; they work hard and believe in self-improvement. They are driven but uncomfortable with conflict. At work, they put in long hours and are concerned with competition from the coming generation. Gen Xers, those born between 1965 and 1979, were alienated as children and do not respond well to authority and are willing to challenge it; they tend to be skeptical. However, they are practical in their approach to work and are technologically savvy. Millennials (or Generation Y), those born between 1981 and 1995, were protected as children and their parents are often their BFFs. They are digital natives and like to collaborate, but are also achievement-oriented. They like to multi-task and are self-assured. They like to be autonomous, but also feel they deserve to be recognized and rewarded. They are used to working in teams and have a can-do attitude at work.

You have no doubt read many generalizations like the above that have been made about these four generations, and the challenges organizations have because these four generations are working side-by-side in the workplace today (see for example, Hawley, 2009; Taylor, 2014; and Twenge, 2006). In addition to these four generations, organizations are already starting to hire members of Generation Z, those born after 1995. Despite the many descriptions of these generations and their differences that are found in the popular press, the reactions from researchers and the scientific community have been quite mixed. In fact, it is one of the few topics in social science research today for which there is no end of controversy and debate. The more tempered of the researchers would say that we should exercise caution in making these generalizations because the evidence is not yet in. On the other hand, there is another group of researchers who have concluded that the evidence just does not exist, and that generational differences are for the most part artificial. They explain that it is difficult to separate the effects of age and life stage with shared experiences (or cohort effects). Others go further and argue that it is dangerous to even consider generational differences because it stereotypes people of different generations. Furthermore, such differential treatments might lead to age discrimination lawsuits, at least in the United States.

In the media and among many managers I have spoken to, however, these differences seem real. A few of these managers express genuine frustration with the attitudes of some Millennials, and there have been many articles written about them, from how they should be treated, the kinds of work environments they prefer, their work-life balance, and their desire for continuous feedback. Price Waterhouse Coopers has made it a point in its recruiting to target Millennials, and to develop human resources practices to engage and motivate them. Other managers I have interviewed shared their concerns about Millennials managing older workers. In Silicon Valley, there are many start-ups where Millennials are finding it challenging to manage other Millennials.

Why the continued appeal of contrasting workers’ attitudes and preferences from a generational perspective? There are several explanations, and I offer the following, some of which are based on the hypotheses that Steel and Kammeyer-Mueller (2016) have suggested. First, we have a tendency to stereotype and make generalizations about groups of people. It simplifies our thought process and provides us with mental short-cuts. Generational grouping is one among many dimensions where it seems almost second-nature for us to believe that the differences among them are indeed real. Second, we know from evolutionary psychology that as a species we humans make spontaneous ingroup-outgroup categorizations; even when the criteria for categorizing are sometimes trivial (like preferences for certain paintings or even certain colors) we affiliate ourselves with those who we feel we have something in common (Tafjel and Turner, 1986; van Vugt and Park, 2009). Forming these generational categorizations is not at all surprising, given that different generations have a presumed number of experiences in common.

Third, following attribution theory, our stereotypes are reinforced when we attribute the causes of behavior to a generational characteristic. For example, a manager attributes the difficulties a Baby Boomer employee may be having with a new technology being introduced in his company because he is of that generation that does not like technology. Fourth, our stereotypes are further reinforced because of cognitive biases – specifically availability and representative biases. As an example of availability bias, note that lottery organizers like to publicize their winners so when people are thinking about buying that lottery ticket, they will remember examples of these winners. Similarly, when we think about Millennials, examples that come to mind are from the media or from our recent encounters with millennial employees. With representative bias, we tend to generalize from a Baby Boomer or two and conclude that they are representative of the entire generation.

As mentioned earlier, the debate about generational differences is far from settled, with the skeptics arguing that many of these differences can be explained in part by age, life stage, or career stage, while others argue that there are in fact generational cohorts that we can view as belonging to different categories based on common shared experiences (e.g., World War II for Traditionalists, the Civil Rights movement for Baby Boomers). There are actually two sets of arguments here. The first argues that categorizing individuals by generation ignores individual differences. Costanza and Finkelstein (2015), for example, argue that “The key to managing a multigenerational workforce effectively is for managers not to make decisions about employees using their generation as a shortcut to their characteristics and needs but rather to measure critical individual differences as well as to track the gradual developmental and demographic changes that occur within and among individuals over time.” (p. 317)

The second argues for not using generation at all as a category to differentiate individuals. Here are Costanza and Finkelstein again: “The assumption that grouping people into arbitrary cohorts on the basis of supposedly impactful events they may have experienced in a common way will somehow magically make them much more homogeneous on those variables is not only unsupported by the research but also runs counter to what we know about individual differences.” (p. 321)

However, while those proponents of generational differences argue that individuals who have more or less experienced what sociologists call “history-graded influences” (such as the independence of Singapore for Singaporeans or the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 for Filipinos) can potentially impact their developmental outcomes, this does not suggest that everyone will be impacted in the same way. As Lyons et al. (2015) stated: “… within-cohort variance does not disprove the existence of generations; it is an interesting empirical feature of generations that helps us to delineate patterns of thought and action within the generation.” (p. 351) For example, organizational behavior researchers analyze employee data by looking at groupings such as length of service. The assumption here is that in general those with differing lengths of service might have different attitudes about the organization – and in fact, they often do. This is not to deny the existence of variation within each of the categories of length of service, but simply to use a grouping variable to understand patterns. Similarly, market researchers segment potential customers through such variables as age and gender. Advertisers charge more for TV ads that are targeted for that coveted 18-49 segment.  Furthermore, as Banaji and Greenwald (2013) have pointed out, “It is not possible to be human and to avoid making use of stereotypes.” In fact, they suggest, we have stereotypes based on different categories, and we rarely stereotype persons on one category alone. It is the combination of these categories that allows us to form an impression that makes each person unique.

The reality for many managers is that more and more of them are facing multiple generations of employees in the workplace. Furthermore, millennials alone are expected to be 50% of the workforce by 2020. This adds even more complexity and another dimension to the diversity of the workforce (in addition to other dimensions such as race, gender, and cognitive styles). My advice to managers is the following. First, be aware of your own assumptions and biases with regard to different generations. Increasing your self-awareness by checking with others and asking for feedback should be part of a manager’s toolkit. Per, a Swedish Baby Boomer manager recently hired to manage a group of very young engineers at a high-tech start-up, initially started by giving a lot of autonomy to his team. To his surprise, not everyone responded well, with some of them asking for more structure and more direction than Per would have expected from these Millennials.

Second, learn to adapt a flexible style especially when communicating with different team members. While this might go against your natural preference, fight the tendency to always stay in your comfort zone, especially when selecting how to communicate with others. The most successful salespeople and presenters make it a point to know their audience and tailor their messages accordingly. Learn about and practice different styles so you will be able to draw on these different styles as needed. Third, make an effort to learn the wide range of social media platforms available. Most of us know about LinkedIn and  Twitter, but what about Pinterest and Yammer? How much do you know about these tools, and how the extent to which your organization is using them as communication tools for employees? Read about, and/or ask colleagues and your direct reports, about how you can use some of these tools to improve your communication. 

Fourth, seek commonalities among your diverse team members to build cohesion and a common purpose, and learn how to use these differences to your team’s and organization’s advantage. Kathy, a marketing manager for a consumer products company, built a highly effective team made up of different generations of members by involving them in developing a challenging goal for the team (in her case, to create a successful marketing campaign in 12 months) and drawing on the different types of expertise within the team for contributions. Another example of using generational differences effectively is the practice of reverse mentoring, which companies such as Cisco, MasterCard and HP have implemented successfully.

Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot. New York: Delacorte Press.

Costanza, D. and Finkelstein, L. (2015). Generationally Based Differences in the Workplace: Is There a There There? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8 (3): 308-323.

Hawley, C. (2009). Managing the Older Employee: Communicate, Motivate, Innovate. Avon, MA: Avon Books.

Lyons, S. et al. (2015). Generational Differences in the Workplace: There Is Complexity Beyond the Stereotypes. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8 (3): 346-356.

Steel, P. and Kammeyer-Mueller (2015). The World Is Going to Hell, the Young No Longer Respect Their Elders, and Other Tricks of the Mind. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8 (3): 366-371.

Tafjel, H. and Turner, J. (1986). The Social Identity Theory of Group Behavior. In S. Worchel and W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations, pp. 7-24. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Taylor, P. (2014). The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Slowdown. New York: Public Affairs.

Twenge, J. (2006). Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitles – and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free Press.

Van Vugt, M. and Park, J. (2009). The Tribal Instinct Hypothesis: Evolution and the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. In S. Sturmer and M. Snyder (Eds.), The Psychology of Prosocial Behavior, pp. 13-32. London: Blackwell.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Learning to Be a Leader in B-School

Prior to taking my executive MBA course in Global Leadership in Singapore, the students (many of whom are middle or senior managers working for global firms) are required to complete a brief assignment and answer several questions. One of these questions is why it is important for them to want to be a leader. Over the years, I have compiled over hundreds of these responses, and they tend to cluster in three different categories. About a third refer to students’ ambitions to be promoted and move up to senior management positions, and to have a successful professional career. Another third are about their strong drive to achieve challenging goals. And about a third are about their motivation to help or to be part of a larger mission (they are the “givers” rather than “takers,” in Adam Grant’s terminology). The following is a sample of answers from this third group of students:

I enjoy the challenge of helping others to succeed and take pride in my ability to develop and empower people. I also like building high performing teams that have a common goal with each member understanding their vital role in achieving that goal - “the golden thread.”
I believe that I want to be a leader so that I can help others and improve the well-being of others.
Yes, it would give me immense satisfaction to look back and recognize that my leadership has developed a set of capable individuals and has contributed towards the growth of the company.

I enjoy seeing my contributions producing greater impact to a wider audience and seeing results. Being a leader is about being a knowledgeable servant, a change initiator, an adaptable learner, a good communicator and a person of action.

I enjoy helping people grow, by mutually sharing knowledge and experiences, building on their strengths and developing the areas where they need help. I get a lot of energy from looking at what we have today, and what we need to succeed in the next 3-5 years, and building plans to bring that vision to life.

From my experience having worked for over 30 years in Fortune 500 companies and continuing to coach and consult with executives, I’m not surprised at this distribution of responses. While only a third see their motivation in terms of a larger mission, it is this group of future leaders who are vitally important to the long-term success of their organizations.

Now for those of you who have an MBA, who have gone through any leadership programs or courses, or have read books on leadership, I am sure you are familiar with the many explanations and theories of leadership. Amazon last month alone had over 30,000 book results on this subject. As a professor who teaches leadership in a business school, and as a consultant who coaches managers and executives to become better leaders, I am reasonably acquainted with many of the debates about leadership (e.g., whether leaders are born or made, whether we need management or leadership, whether leadership really makes a difference in organizations). In a new book very critical of the Harvard Business School (and many other business schools, by implication), the writer Duff McDonald resurrects many of these criticisms in a chapter entitled “Can Leaders Be Manufactured?”

What exactly are his arguments against the business school approach to leadership and leadership education? First, he claims that there is no general agreement on a definition of leadership. Perhaps, he argues, this is because leadership cannot be taught in the same way as other business topics (such as accounting) because it is “… more of an emergent quality and context-specific.” In other words, leadership cannot be defined because it is something that a person either has or does not have in a particular situation. 

Second, by emphasizing the individual qualities of the leader (that is, the leader as a heroic individual), HBS and other business schools are ignoring the collaborative aspects of leadership.  Third, leadership cannot be boiled down into a set of skills or placed in a pedestal as a virtue because it (see earlier argument above) “… severs the whole notion of leadership from its ties to identity, community, and context.” For McDonald, leadership cannot be reduced to a number or packaged into some kind of checklist.

And fourth, business schools “conflate” leadership with formal authority and hierarchical supervision. In other words, he claims that business schools teach students that to be a leader, they have to be a boss first. Furthermore, business schools (especially HBS) teach students to be leaders so they can advance their careers and improve corporate financial performance. As evidence that HBS has not produced leaders who have made a difference in making the world better, he points out that their graduates tend to “horde together” in similar industries depending on where they can make the most money.

McDonald’s blistering critique of the business school approach to leadership seems over-the-top (as is much of the book) and he is selective in citing quotations and books that support his arguments. His bias against teaching leadership (and by extension, organizational behavior) is exemplified with his statement that starting in the 1950s, when corporations decided to outsource leadership training to business schools, this was proof positive indicating that they (and human resources) were merely showing “a feigned interest in the human side of corporate life.”

Based on my reading of his book, I doubt that McDonald has reviewed the extensive scientific literature on leadership, sat in on some recent classes on leadership, or interviewed recent business school graduates who have taken courses in organizational behavior. In fact, his view of leadership can be summarized succinctly when he states, in another section of the book: “Most of us can agree that leadership is an emergent quality; it reveals itself in the moment, and you either rise to the challenge or you don’t.” (p. 197) To paraphrase McDonald: Really? Is that all there is? That leadership is all about just stepping up when the situation calls for it? On this one point, I agree that rising to the challenge is certainly part of being a leader. As management guru Marshall Goldsmith likes to point out, courses in leadership and company programs to develop leaders won’t do a bit of good unless the person himself or herself makes a decision to become a better leader. However, to modify an established psychological principle, PL = M x A x E. In other words, your performance as a leader (PF) is a function not only of your Motivation (Do you want to be a leader? Do you have the desire? Do you have the courage?) but also of your Ability (or more generally, your skill set) and the Environment (Does the situation help or hinder the exercise of leadership, e.g., does your organization encourage you to grow as a leader, do you have role models or others who have influenced you?). For McDonald, leadership seems to be all about the M. In my experience in coaching leaders, it seems that many individuals don’t necessarily make a conscious decision to become a leader. Leadership for them becomes more of a process and a discovery, where over time (as they form a direction or point of view, try to influence others or get encouragement from role models), they increase their self-awareness and find out they want to do this, and/or they might be good at this.

I also agree with his criticism of what passes for much of leadership education these days in business schools, where such leadership courses seem isolated and unintegrated with courses such as finance and marketing. There is much more that can be done to embed leadership perspectives in these functional courses. The other major criticism that McDonald has about business schools like HBS is what he considers to be an almost total reliance on the case method. This is not quite fair; many business schools have supplemented their lectures and cases with simulations and experiential activities such as role plays so students can get behavioral feedback. They have taken to heart the research findings (and common sense) indicating that much of adult learning comes from experience and learning from others. Many business schools have designed structured experiences so that students get feedback, reflect on what they have done, and raise their self-awareness. This is especially important for leadership courses, where students need to observe, practice and get feedback about their leadership mind-set and skills.

Rather than addressing his arguments point-by-point, I’d like to offer several observations about leadership and leadership education. First, despite what McDonald claims, there has been emerging consensus over the past two decades on what constitutes leadership and leadership effectiveness. There are several excellent and well-researched books on leadership that summarize these findings, including Leadership in Organizations by social scientist Gary Yukl (2010). Although there are indeed many definitions of leadership, almost all organizational psychologists would agree with Yukl’s conclusion that “most definitions share the assumption that (leadership) involves an influence process concerned with facilitating the performance of a collective task.” (p. 23), and that this influence is for a direction (some would say “vision” or “point of view”) that the leader has in mind. He then summarizes ten behaviors of effective leaders, based on the overwhelming research evidence to date. I’ve included these below, along with the eight behaviors of effective managers that Google identified recently based on the extensive data they collected internally on what differentiates effective from average managers (Garvin, 2013). There is a strong overlap in these two lists (as well as several others that have emerged in the literature). Furthermore, most social scientists agree that leadership can be defined as a set of behaviors that can be learned and practiced (e.g., Kouzes and Posner, 2007), and that effective leadership does lead to better engagement, motivation, and performance. In other words, good leaders do make a difference not only to the individuals but also to their teams, their organizations, and to their communities and societies.

Second, contrary to what McDonald asserts, the great majority of contemporary research and practice on leadership stresses the importance of collaborative versus authoritarian leadership. The Jack Welches of the world are still around but they are a minority among executives today. I remember reading in an interview a few years ago when Jeff Immelt, Welch’s successor and current CEO of GE, commented that if he had to give a direct order more than five times a year, he felt he was not being an effective leader. In fact, there is no respectable social scientist today who would argue that leadership is synonymous with hierarchy, formal authority, or a command-and-control view. Perhaps the best contemporary examples of this collaborative approach to leadership development are coming not from the corporate world but from the military, and specifically West Point. From conversations I have had with faculty and students there, as well as books by and interviews with West Point graduates (just as one example, former general Stanley McChrystal wrote a book recently on shared power and leadership and has a successful consulting practice helping companies), their approach to leadership as collaborative and as a set of behaviors that can be learned is consistent with the evidence from social science research.

Of course, there are still many executives today who view leadership as a raw grab for power and exercise of authority. These are reflected in the comments from some of my students, and there are many examples of these ego-driven and narcissistic types in organizations today. But for the most part, managers as well as senior executives in different types of organizations recognize that they need a different kind of leadership these days to be effective.

In summary: 1) leaders are both born and made; in other words, while some may have traits that help them to become leaders, many of us can build and improve on our leadership skills; 2) leadership can be exercised at many levels of an organization, and is not dependent solely on power or status; 3) those with collaborative skills and concern for others (along with technical skills and the right kinds of experiences) tend to become more effective leaders in the long run, 4) for many, becoming a leader is more of a process rather than a single act or decision that defines them as a leader, with self-awareness being a critical aspect of this journey, and 5) learning from experience and from others (such as role models) can greatly influence one’s growth and development as a leader. Many years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he was still a bodybuilder, used to tell his fans that they were never going to build up their bodies simply by reading his books and watching his videos (of which he had quite a few). You had to go and actually exercise and practice. The best approaches to leadership education today focus on those critical behaviors constituting leadership and provide students with the knowledge and skills to practice and improve their effectiveness as leaders in the context of their specific situation.

What Effective Leaders Do (Yukl)
·      Help interpret the meaning of events
·      Create alignment on objectives and strategies
·      Build task commitment and optimism
·      Build mutual trust and cooperation
·      Strengthen collective identity
·      Organize and coordinate activities
·      Encourage and facilitate collective learning
·      Obtain necessary resources and support
·      Develop and empower people
·      Promote social justice and morality
What an Effective Leader Does (Google)
·      Is a good coach 
·      Empowers the team and does not micromanage
·      Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being 
·      Is productive and results-oriented 
·      Is a good communicator—listens and shares information 
·      Helps with career development 
·      Has a clear vision and strategy for the team 
·      Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team


Garvin, D. (2013). How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management. Harvard Business Review, December.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2007). The Leadership Challenge. New York: Wiley.

McDonald, D. (2017). The Golden Passport. New York: HarperCollins.


Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.