Debunking age-old myths of the office

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am

WHO HAS NOT heard the refrain 'back in my day' or 'when I was your age' from a parent or grandparent commenting on the way things change?

In the workplace, though, employees from different generations must decide how to get along with minimum disagreement or dissent. This is easier said than done. A group of individuals with differing backgrounds, outlooks and agendas is likely to work at cross purposes, which might force the organisation to go off course.

Today, many companies employ staff whose ages range from late teens to early seventies. In effect, they span five generations. Much has been said about the issues and attitudes that separate older and younger employees, but it turns out these views are often based on assumptions.

A new study delves into similarities and differences in areas related to leadership to give us a better understanding of the challenges of working across generations.

The Emerging Leaders Research Survey was conducted by the Centre for Creative Leadership, a non-profit educational institution based in the United States. The organisation aims to advance the understanding, practice and development of leadership capabilities.

Research scientist Jennifer Deal conducted the study and the initial findings were based on data collected over an 18-month period ending December 2002. More than 3,400 respondents provided information. Most participants, 57 per cent of whom were female, were born in the United States and were residents of the country.

The sample may seem relatively small and a little dated, but the method involves detailed analysis of responses. Furthermore, the study is continuing and, this year, will cover people living and working in Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Ms Deal said the survey was conducted after requests from clients, who pointed out that relying on assumptions could damage an organisation's credibility and result in the loss of good employees across all age groups.

The survey identifies five distinct generations: silents - the 8 per cent of respondents born between 1925 and 1945; early boomers, the 29 per cent born from 1946 to 1954; late boomers, the 30 per cent born from 1955 to 1963; early Gen-Xers, the 30 per cent of participants born between 1964 and 1976; and late Gen-Xers, the 3 per cent born from 1977 to 1982.

One aim was to examine different values about what people wanted to learn and how. The research found that differences in outlook regarding employee education and development were driven more by career and position in the organisation than by age or factors related to differences in generations. Other findings help dispel certain myths about the workplace by showing the following:

Regardless of age, people generally express the same values. Across all age groups, employees cite family, integrity, love and self-respect among their top five values. Fame, affluence, authority, competition and advancement are least likely to be among the top five.

Learning on the job is important to all - the young and the old. In fact, this is similarly true when assessed by rank, gender, race, type of company or country of origin.

There is an overall agreement across generations about what they want to learn. It is not the case that older people want training in broader issues, such as strategy and leadership development, while younger people want courses in specific business skills. Everyone's priorities are to be better leaders and team players, and to develop problem-solving abilities.

It is a common belief that younger employees want to learn everything by using the computer. However, the survey shows that all the groups prefer on-the-job training, peer interaction and getting feedback. Given the option, they consider coaching as the most suitable method for learning soft skills in conflict management, negotiations and influencing people. The view that technical skills or hard skills are best taught by a computer also turned out to be untrue.

Many organisations think that younger staff can be retained by offering more money while older employees will continue to work with them because they already have everything they want.

In fact, for younger employees, compensation is not as important as having good career prospects and the chance to learn and advance. On the other hand, senior employees remain ambitious because they want to gain greater recognition and take on new and bigger challenges.

Respondents, cutting across generations, said that continuity, compensation, corporate values, work-life balance and communication contributed to their decision to stick with their present employer.

The main differences were seen not in the factors themselves, but in the relative importance attached to each parameter and the way these were described by the respondents.

The survey also revealed some surprising truths about patterns of work. Overall, 24 per cent of the respondents reported working 40 hours or less per week. The late Gen-Xers, with 64 per cent, were most likely to fall into this category.

Meanwhile, 53 per cent of all respondents reported working between nine hours and 10 hours a day, though 30 per cent said they did eight hours or less. The late Gen-Xers, at 65 per cent, were more likely to work fewer than eight hours a day. Overall, people in more senior positions tended to work longer.

The next stage of the project is about incorporating feedback from employees in Asia and Australia. This phase will continue until December this year. Once the results are in, a true global picture of how we get along with others in the workplace will be available - a useful road map for the future.


Give them a choice. Encourage employee feedback about personal development plans. Offer a mix of on-the-job training, action-learning assignments and educational courses. Assess their motivation and find out what kind of salary and benefits they expect.

Reward and recognise. Provide short-term performance-based rewards. Show appreciation - everyone wants the boss to say what is being done well.

Let employees know where they stand. Give timely and consistent feedback. Staff generally prefer candid assessments of what needs improvement and where the problems lie.

Encourage entrepreneurs. Give employees ownership of their work and responsibility for results. Introduce opportunities to show initiative.

Care for your people to get work done. Good bosses look after their staff and also ensure the work gets done.

Create a relaxed environment. With so much time spent at work, no one wants to be on the edge all the time.

Share the spotlight. You don't do everything yourself, so give credit and acknowledge people behind the scenes.

Help others learn. Provide opportunities and allow people to extract maximum advantage.

Recognise value. When employees make themselves more valuable through formal education or by gaining practical experience, reward them. If you don't, another employer might.

Forget about 'face time'. Don't make the mistake of thinking that time spent with an employee helps in judging their productivity and worth. This approach indicates a lack of trust, a need for control or an inability to manage well.

Don't confuse age and experience. Make informed decisions based on actual performance, not the number of years of service.

Information based on results from the Centre for Creative Leadership's Emerging Leaders Research Project