Two summers ago, I ran in to a work colleague at a local coffee shop and had an interesting exchange that would help shape this passage I am about to write.
My colleague was having a late afternoon caffeinated libation with his cousin who just started her first “real” job after graduating with a degree in Accounting.
They proposed I sit with them and have my coffee “for here” in a real mug rather than “to go” in a paper cup.
Seeing how I had left work early that day to enjoy the afternoon off, I was more than happy to have a coffee and a conversation.
Naturally, the focus of our conversation was my colleague’s cousin’s new job. I must admit, it was very refreshing to hear such intense enthusiasm and engagement from someone of this new generation of workforce.
I had just had a long week of discussions at work about how many disengaged and perhaps disinterested people we had on our team. In some cases, even people who did not even care about what they were doing.
Juxtaposed with this, it was almost uplifting and gave me hope for the future. The idea that in a leadership role, a vital element will be to choose the right people for our vacant positions would be of paramount importance.
As the conversation ping-ponged from topic to topic and theme to theme, I decided to ask a question that was pressing in my mind and relevant to my work environment. That of dealing with staff mistakes.
I asked my colleague’s cousin what she would do if her new supervisor tried to punish or discipline her for a substantial mistake?
Now, I realize my question was a loaded one and I was not expecting a subdued response yet, the response I got was somewhat unexpected.
She started to laugh-out-load, or LOL as they say these days and I mean with a CAPITAL O-L.
I was taken-a-back at first yet as she simmered down, I asked her what was the impetus for such a strong reaction?
At a very high level she explained to me the difference to her between feedback and just simply poor leadership and said that if that was the style and approach of her supervisor moving forward, she would have no hesitation to quitting and finding a new job.
As someone in a leadership position, this resonated with me a great deal and made me think, “what is my leadership role and relevance for someone like my colleague’s cousin?”
With reflection, this is was I would now call the new generation of workforce or what I would refer to as the first G in GERC.
Generational differences; Expertise; Recruitment; Command and control.
Demographic change is normal and with the passage of time we always have a new generation of workforce.
The difference I find now more than previously in my lifetime, is that the leadership generation that has been in the workforce for a decade or two, are having a harder time understanding this new generation more so than the previous one.
For the record, I do not count myself as an exception to this.
I am told this new generation wants feedback. When I give it, I get push-back?
I am told this new generation wants work that is meaningful. When opportunity is there for them to do it, we see apathy?
I could go on-and-on, yet I would likely make myself more of a cliché than I already am.
Either I don’t know how to give feedback well or I don’t know what meaningful work is or I simply don’t understand. All of this is likely true to some extent.
Can you relate?
It cannot be denied that the workforce has changed in a way that we in leadership positions might have not been prepared for and not sure how to deal with.
Objectively, there is indication that neither generation fully understands each other and what each wants and needs and what motivates each at a high level.
From my experience, what I have simply learned is something I apply often and in many instances; don’t presume and assume.
Don’t presume the entire new generation wants the same thing in the same way.
Don’t assume the new generation will act and react the same way or in a way you think they will.
Notwithstanding, we need to circle back to the question for ourselves as leaders, “what is our relevance in this new work environment?”
If next we look at expertise, the E in GERC, in the old paradigm new staff learned from the existing leadership. The experience of those performing the work for many years was integral to the success of new staff passing along this knowledge.
In today’s context, in many organizations and with certain types of jobs, the experience of the leader matters less as knowledge and information is readily available.
In some fields, such as with IT jobs, the next generation workforce might possess technical skills and abilities that surpass those of their supervisors.
The internet also offers an abundance of information and knowledge that is freely available to anyone interested in looking for it. Leaders do not have a monopoly on this type of knowledge and information any longer. This type of power they had from years of work experience has diminished.
Individuals can also gain a great deal of knowledge from networks that exist outside the organization that can easily form and share narratives and stories to enable each other to learn and grow.
Organizations have little control as to what staff do outside work in this vast new world of social and virtual interaction. And, these external group may in fact exert more influence on staff than even their supervisor might.
We have seen the strength of such groups and communities evolve in the virtual world. These groups might be communicating to staff in a manner that resonates with them more than their supervisor can.
The advantage these groups might have is that in a world of information overload, the group members communicate more directly, safely and more simply. The members accept what is relayed as the information is coming from “one of us.”
Counter this with a typical work environment that aims to give feedback even in a constructive manner. The tool that is commonly used is a performance review or dialogue.
These reviews might be linked to pay increase, may lead to more serious consequences if bad behaviour is not modified. These might be done at fixed time intervals regardless of how individuals learn best and the time it takes for behaviour modification.
The process is often deflating emphasizing weakness and far from “safe.”
Does this type of leadership lend well to influencing staff to follow leadership?
A leader today is not automatically entitled to fellowship as was once the case.
Staff choose who to follow and not follow and that might even include following someone else in the workplace who is not their immediate supervisor yet someone in their same group.
Leaders have lost the position power and authority they once had automatically even if they don’t realize it or want to admit it.
This new reality is another indication that leaders will need to find a new way to engage the team.
One might now want to make the argument that leadership should simply hire the type of people they are looking for, that can follow directions, that won’t resist whatever existing leadership style and practices that have existed in the organization for years.
This leads us to the next new reality. The R in GERC, Recruitment.
There once was time whereby employers had the upper hand, labour was readily available and cheap. The reality has shifted to the advantage of the well educated and well-informed job hunter.
In certain industries, labour shortages have forced employers to seek staff from elsewhere around the world.
The new generation workforce does not necessarily see their first job as their last job yet more of a stepping-stone for their next job.
It is now the employer that needs to say, “thank you,” to someone accepting a job rather than the candidate saying, “thank you for hiring me.”
The new generation of workforce want to know what their employer can do for them and offer them compared to another employer.
The employer now must position themselves as worthy of the candidate rather than the candidate being worthy of the employer.
This is evident just by looking at the new trends in job positing for new graduates. Employers are highlighting that they think the candidates will gain by working for them.
In some instances, employers are adding perks to compete for the candidates they are looking to attract. Moreover, money itself might no longer be enough as well.
This changes the dynamic again for leadership and leads us to the next letter in GERC, C for Command and control.
Other than in times of major crisis or emergency, we have seen the old military influenced structure of command and control is no longer an effective leadership approach.
People want a say in decisions that impact them and want to contribute to problems that they are facing even if they do not have the formal training or tools to work through such challenges.
Every prevailing leadership indication is towards a direction of more staff autonomy and control. Yet, in a leadership position, what does this precisely mean?
Now that we have defined the GERC, let us now evaluate what options exist for leadership to navigate through this new reality.
If we start with the staff members themselves, we need to ask certain questions and recognize and admit certain realities.
What element might best describe the staff member at a high-level when it comes to a certain task?
Are they subject matters experts?
Are they individuals that can or should shape the process of tasks?
Are they going to be participants that follow what the group decides?
Are they rebels?
Are they another kind of stakeholder that might be impacted by changes to the existing task or process?
As a leader, asking these questions might be difficult as your position power and authority may not make you a subject matter expert.
You might never do these tasks.
You might not ever be implicated by the work at all and in these cases, you will need to own this reality and maybe even defer to those that know more and who do the work and take a step back and let them lead.
Your role as a leader in these instances may become that of facilitator.
The leader might act to ensure collaboration regardless of hierarchy even if that means collaborating with areas and units outside the unit’s normal influence of control such as with Procurement or Compliance.
The staff that choose to be part of the solution should be self-selected. People should not be forced to be a part of the process yet should be there because they want to impact positive change and have a role to play related to the task.
They should also not be there just because of their position and title.
The leader now becomes the individual that acts as facilitator, mediator, mentor, coach and sounding board.
The journey should result in an outcome that is co-created by all those participated even if the contribution levels vary among people. It should not simply be top-down yet the leader can help establish group norms for decision making.
Given this structure, it is evident that the group will need frameworks for such matters as decision making, conflict resolution, work-flow expectations, definition of quality, ergonomics, and even budget consideration.
Each team can use existing frameworks or with the proper guidance, develop their own. These frameworks can be developed quickly and then revised as realities evolve.
The frameworks should be simple and accessible and transparent to all within the group.
It is important to understand that clarity does not reduce the stress of complexity. A complex framework or process will have inherent challenges to being accepted and implemented and resistance to complexity should be expected and hence avoided.
Work should also be aligned with how people work naturally with respect to their energy and emotional and intellectual capacity for daily work.
Leaders need to express their vision coherently and also live what they profess.
Before applying any directive or expectation for the team, the leader needs to apply it to themselves and evaluate if they meet the criteria. If not, the leader should revisit this expectation.
A leader can ask staff two simple questions, “how do you want to contribute?” “How do you want to grow?”
A typical function of a leader might be to make plans and distribute them to staff yet the new reality might call for a revision to this standard.
Knowing that plans might change within moments of implementation and after even “Step 1” leaders might focus more on relaying the high-level goal or objective.
Leaders need to help facilitate or develop processes that might lead to good result for everyone.
Leaders also need to reinforce the behaviour the organization is looking for.
One such area is quality. A leader must understand that if the organization is not able to tangibly define quality in plain language, they should not expect staff to understand that which is vague or unclear.
If leadership can not explain quality, they should not expect staff to live-up to it.
When it comes to quality, leadership needs to choose only a few keystone tasks or processes to emphasis and define and not exaggerate that every task is as consequential as the others.
Quality can be defined through a process of dialogue with the team.
The team needs to be able to reinforce their self-image of the work they do.
The team can be part of a larger community and the community needs to be vocal.
The community and the teams need to set the standards and the team and/or community needs to hold individuals to that standard.
Leadership need to remain humble, self-aware, disciplined in all of this.
As a leader, you might get annoyed and get annoyed a lot.
Some leaders might need to simply start by stop doing things that are a part of the GERC paradigm as a starting point.
Leaders need to understand that the words we use matter and if they are linked to good results for the team, even better. If the words they use lead to poor reactions and results, those words may need revision.
Self-reflection needs to be synonymous with leadership.
Ideally, leaders need to enjoy what they do on a regular basis. If not, the individuals in this role might not be the right person for this role.
Teams and communities need to create their own narratives with the guidance of leadership keeping in consideration the GERC.