Beyond the Traditional Workplace Hierarchy

As the workforce continues to age, and the impact of the poor economy with its roller-coaster stock market and shrinking 401(k) accounts has forced many boomers to stay at their jobs longer, an interesting dynamic is evolving: older workers sometimes work for young bosses.
This presents interesting challenges and opportunities for all involved. One question that must be answered is how to leverage the experience and knowledge of the older workers and build skills for the younger, less experienced people who have transitioned into leadership positions.

Younger workers have built their careers with the expectation that older workers would retire, opening up opportunities. They have experienced the “flattening” of their organizations, eliminating many opportunities for promotion, and now they see their ascension to power blocked by people who “should” be retiring. The resulting frustration causes some to look outside their company for opportunities, but those are few and far between.

This can create tension and resentment if not acknowledged and dealt with. Workers old and young, management and non-management, must engage each other to create a common understanding. Using dialogue groups, cross-functional and age-mixed task forces, steering committees and mentoring programs can help to leverage all of the organization’s talent. Skilled facilitators can help people bridge gaps in knowledge and understanding. But efforts must be intentional to create constructs that enable people to work together more effectively.

Different Is Just Different
To properly utilize older workers, senior leaders need to think differently about their organizational structures as well as specific job roles. Instead of traditional titles with a linear progression to the top, each function within a business must identify the talent and skills it needs to succeed and staff accordingly. Workers of all ages need to learn the skills required to manage in an environment where ambiguity, constant change and multiple work styles are normal. The risk averse must become risk takers, the rule makers must become rule breakers and all must collaborate.

One of the major hurdles is each group learning to appreciate the differences, strengths and weaknesses of the other. When younger workers are in leadership positions with older people on their teams, they must provide direction and instructions regarding work assignments in ways older workers can understand. For example, many younger workers collaborate more easily than older workers. An older worker may think hierarchically — command and control — and miss the subtle assumption that he or she can gather the resources required to accomplish a task without explicit instructions.

Workers of all ages must limit their assumptions and be clear about expectations, goals and work methodologies. When interacting, they should assume other parties do not fully understand and provide more information. The tricky part is to accomplish this without being perceived as condescending.

For instance, workers might say, “You probably already understand this but I need to be clear. We’re going to work with the accounting people independently of both of our departmental structures. You have the authority and ability to get resources from the entire company. If you are unsure about anything as you go forward, please come and see me and we’ll discuss it. There’s no one right way to accomplish the goal so use all the resources available.”

Further, understand each group’s motivators. As Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman write in their book When Generations Collide, the differences between the four generations in the workforce are striking in terms of motivators and life goals. Understanding and appreciating those differences is key to working together.

Leaders should be wary of stereotypes, but a few generalizations are safe to make and impact how groups may work together. Traditionalists (born 1900 to 1945) grew up with memories of the Great Depression and two world wars. They understand scarcity and how to save and survive with less. At work, they are loyal because losing one’s job is a frightening prospect. They respect the chain of command and seldom violate it. For them, 30 to 40 years on the job and a gold watch at retirement was what it was all about.

Baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964), on the other hand, changed everything they touched, including the chain of command. They were generally better educated and benefited from their parents’ frugality. Boomers appreciated the structure they inherited but wanted to make it better, faster.

Generation Xers (Born 1965 to 1980), while smaller in numbers than either traditionalists or baby boomers, are an influential generation. Motivations around money, loyalty and optimism hardly matter, and they can be described as somewhat skeptical. They experienced significant change in American political leadership, organized religion, the military and corporate America — all were called into question. During their formative years, the divorce rate tripled. Therefore, they put more faith in themselves than in institutions. They are about self-command and collaboration, and are interested in successful outcomes.

Like the baby boomers, millennials (born 1981 to 1999) are large in numbers. Influenced by all previous generations, millennials are the realistic generation. Technologically savvy and socially conscious, millennials demand a diverse workplace and are accustomed to negotiating all of their life needs. They often do not care for hard and fast rules. Millennials are mobile and want to be able to contribute from day one. To frustrate millennials, pigeonhole them, don’t listen to their ideas and tell them their time will come. They believe their time is now.

Seek to Be Understood
Given these differences in motivation, when generations are mixed but not coached on potential misunderstandings, conflict is inevitable. All workers must be aware of the differences and engage with an eye toward understanding.

For example, older workers may see younger ones as disloyal or selfish, while the younger workers may see older ones as narrow in their thinking or loyal to a fault. The older workers believe loyalty to their employer is self-preservation, helping the company to survive and thrive. Younger workers want to learn constantly because nothing is forever, and they need to protect their careers. With facilitated dialogue, both sides can be brought to understand that neither is right or wrong — their views are simply different.

Once the right/wrong dichotomy is resolved, both sides can figure out how to make the differences work for them. It’s important to be flexible. Rather than holding on to position and power, older workers should imagine letting go to allow others to participate. Instead of viewing older workers as career obstacles, young workers should see them as resources from which to gain experience. Instead of criticizing other groups’ motivators and values, consider what they mean and how they have guided those people’s lives.

Given the diversity of values and motivators in the workforce, people need to take a fresh look at governance approaches. Self-managed work teams, matrix management approaches and a strict hierarchy may not work as well as a cooperative/collaborative system approach.

A cooperative/collaborative system does not mean organizations move to a one person, one vote kind of democratic system, but one where opposing views are considered and used to arrive at better solutions. Mediation techniques such as appreciative inquiry — a strength-based approach to change using small and large group discussions, simulations and other exercises — and interest-based negotiations — a form of negotiation between two parties where a neutral third party facilitates an amenable settlement — can be helpful.

For instance, in a project team, the project manager makes the majority of the decisions. Decision making reflects the experience and related biases of the decision maker. In a more collaborative, multigenerational model, input comes from multiple stakeholders of all ages and a consensus is built based on the team’s best thinking. This can be more time-consuming, but it almost always results in more robust solutions supported by more stakeholders.

There always will be rules to follow and some structure for accountability, but new thinking and behaviors are important to allay the attitudes, beliefs and biases that drive human behavior and soothe tensions in nontraditional management relationships.

Think about mixed-level teams that include all the generations. Older workers will have to give over some power and control, and younger workers will have to be willing to listen and learn. Listening and learning applies equally to older workers.

Older workers accustomed to taking charge will have to invite younger people to lead. They can still participate and influence, but as senior advisers, letting the younger people experience the pressures and rewards of leadership. In turn, younger leaders must be willing to take the risks associated with being in charge. This is not simply replacing the older with the younger but rather learning to work together and leverage all of the knowledge and experience available.

How It Works
Consider the following scenario. A multibillion-dollar technology company works for three years to transform its global information technology project management office from a traditional hierarchical organization to a flatter, more collaborative group.

The leadership team develops a brand statement for the function and each team member develops a personal brand aligned with the functional brand. That brand is their promise of what they are going to deliver to their customers, and they measure whether or not they succeeded and to what level.

The leadership team focuses on its skills by participating in a yearlong development program followed by a custom-designed program in which every project manager participates. They establish peer-coaching groups and mentoring relationships and focus more on strategy than on the projects under management.

The end result is a group of people dedicated to development for all and to power sharing and succession. Results from a customer survey prove the transformation is successful. Customers who previously saw project managers as administrative people now see them as valued business partners.

A focus on collaboration, development and coaching can work in any industry to ease generational tension. Give and take between stakeholders is critical. Young leaders with older direct reports can take small steps to alter traditional management and leadership practices and change the organization’s business model for the better. Facilitation skills and cross-functional teams can enhance learning.

Continuous learning should become a condition of promotion, and younger employees should be responsible for hard business goals and vision goals that deal with the culture to prepare them for situations where their direct reports are older.

With a focus on dialogue and an emphasis on knowledge sharing and collaboration, organizations can allay tensions in non-traditional work relationships and build an agile, innovative business well positioned for the future.

John R. Anderson is founder and principal of The Glowan Consulting Group and author of Running the Corporate Rapids. He can be reached at