Generational Shifts: A Change Lever to Align Culture
For as long as organizations have existed there has been a need for people from different age groups to be part of the workforce, with some entering, some advancing, some scaling back, or some departing over time. Similar movements are occurring among the four generations currently in the workforce, creating new opportunities for organizational leaders to tackle escalating levels of uncertainty and change (size, type, speed, complexity) across their organizations.
A lot of media attention has focused on the labeled differences among the four generations. This focus does not help organizational leaders determine how to get the most from the changing mix of generations or how to define the collective behaviors needed to deal with the unprecedented uncertainty and change. By viewing generational shifts as a change lever to get everyone working well and moving together in the desired direction, it will increase the possibility of making real organizational change happen. At the same time, it will help to redirect the conversation on generations away from differences to “how to” achieve desired organizational outcomes through shared learning and experience.
Acknowledging that generational shifts can be a valuable lever to impact change is an important first step. In a recently released report on Successful Change Management Practices in the Public Sector published by Management Concepts and Human Capital Media, generational shifts were identified as a high-impact change lever by 37.7 percent of government respondents who completed the Change Management Workplace Survey. This type of acknowledgement allows organizational leaders to shift their focus to understanding what the generational shift currently looks like in their organization so it can be used as a lever for desired change. Gaining an understanding of the current generational shift is not about knowing how many of each generation makeup of the total workforce. It means understanding the people that are part of the mix of generations in an organization from an individual, team, and collective organizational perspective.
Some effective ways to gain an understanding of what the current generational shift looks like in your organization include:
- Recognize how the external and internal contextual factors (i.e., technology, information, diversity) affecting the current generational shift are influencing how everyone in the organization learns, works, and connects with each other
- Identify the individual values held in common within the organization to give you a view of what brings the organization together
- Look at the assumptions and behavioral norms that impact how the mix of generations makes decisions, takes action, and achieves results
- Engage the collective organization in understanding generational shifts occurring and how to best leverage the strengths of individuals and teams
- Pay attention to the common language and way of communicating. Does it help or hinder how work gets done? It is one of the easiest ways to build or breakdown trust and respect among generations
- Take a look at current rules, practices, processes, and procedures. How do they support the needs of the collective generations to increase effectiveness, improve performance, or be innovative?
- How is performance tracked? Are behavioral expectations clear? Is ongoing feedback provided? Answers to these questions impact the everyday operating environment of an organization and influence the individual and collective mindsets, behaviors, and actions
Once there is an understanding of the generational shift that is present and influencing what happens in an organization, the next area of focus should be on is what the generational shift means for the future of the organization. When organizational leaders extend their thinking to the future, it makes consciously creating an aligned organizational culture possible because it becomes an integral part any upcoming organizational change initiative.
For any “from-to” change, the highest-impact actions of organizational leaders should be focused on bridging the gap between the current and future collective generational values and expected behaviors needed to align the culture to sustain the change over time. Some specific high-impact actions to consciously create an aligned culture include:
- Narrow the focus so it is easier see and feel the full effects of the change by focusing on one organizational priority at a time. Envision a possible future that responds to and resonates with others and their desire for individual and collective success
- Identify the intergenerational attributes that attract and detract from the desired outcome of the change effort. The hardest work will be internalizing the expected behaviors of each attribute so that it becomes the “norm” for the organization.
- No matter the generation, individuals change when they want to. It happens at an emotional level through new insights that shift thinking and prompt a change in behavior.
- Role models speed the process of change. When shared learning and experience are valued, others in the organization are there to support, encourage, reinforce, and show empathy through the change process. The outcome is more often lasting change.
- It takes time for new thinking and behaviors to become embedded within an organization’s culture. Reinforcing support to individuals and teams will minimize the opportunities for labeled differences to get in the way of generations collectively engaging in shared learning and experience to achieve and sustain the desired outcomes.
Generational shifts will be an aspect of organizational dynamics for a long time to come. These shifts can be viewed as a powerful lever for real organizational change or can be perceived as an obstacle to any organizational change. Every organizational leader has a choice in how they view generational shifts.
What is your view? Do leaders that take a systems view of culture and change and see the value of individuals and collective generations in the workplace increase their likelihood of leadership success and achieve higher organizational performance?