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The Wounded Healer, Generation Gaps in the New Workplace Gen-Xers and Boomers Working Together

By Michael E. Rock, Ed.D. |

How often does it occur to managers and senior executives to stop and think about the huge personal cost there is to people and companies because of the wrenching global changes the world is going through? The twists and turns of fate and history are very personal indeed today. Layoffs, downsizings, restructurings hurt, and they hurt on a personal level. Companies can ignore the human cost of doing business. The human moment often takes a back seat to shareholder return. But the cost of this neglect is huge.

We may think we are more civilized today in outward appearances but the truth of the matter, as C.G. Jung, M.D. pointed out so clearly over 50 years ago, is that "the primitive man" is still just beneath the surface.

Today that "primitive person" is seen as the shadow side of progress. It is ROI (Return-on-Investment) stripped to its bare bones, with its absolutely needed transformation into ROIR (Return-on-Investment-in- Relationships). Ignatius Loyola pointed out over 300 years ago: there are two standards -- life-affirming values v. despair. Relationship v. Selfishness. Growth v. Destruction. ROIR v. ROI. We do have a choice every day.

Case Situation: Boomers and Gen-Xers1

In the new workplace, the accusations go back and forth: "The twentysomethings just want to do their own thing, they're so self-centred." On the other side are the complaints about the fiftysomsethings: "They're so inflexible and can't make a decision without forming a committee. They hate it if somebody younger than they are tells them what to do."

What we're talking about here is the tension between two generations in the workplace: the Boomers and Generation-Xers. It's a fair question to ask an audience of Boomer managers, "Are you prepared to listen to and heed the sound advice from an employee who is twenty-three years old?" By the same smarts – what is called EQ or emotional intelligence – to listen to and follow the wisdom of an older manager.

This tension between the two generations has spawned a new industry: cross-generation management, consultants who help bridge the communications gap between the different mindsets. Ron Zemke, co-author of Generations at Work, said that if there is too much internal strife and dissension, the company will suffer in the marketplace.

With the collapse of the old hierarchical model for business, the protocol for communication has also disappeared, and with its disappearance, has come the obvious: the serious differences between two very different groups of people. The hierarchical organization became "flat" and also blurry, because of the speed of change. Only a few employees could now get to the "top." A huge number would be in the middle and again only a few at the bottom -- the new knowledge workers, or Generation-Xers. Zemke says, "Indeed these two generations appear to differ on just about every management point in the book -- from how to hold meetings to how many hours to clock." Review the Table below to see some of these fundamental differences.


The Cross-Generational Management Grid
Generation-Xers Boomers
Constantly question decisions Work long hours
Gripe about senior managers Do what they're told

Complain that Boomers

  • are promoted based on tenure v. performance
  • are too slow in making decisions
  • just can't "get on with it"

Complain that Generation Xers

  • are not loyal
  • just "do their own thing"
  • won't stick to something long enough, go into it deeply enough
Bring flexibility Want things "in order"
Bring comfort and an ease with change Struggle with change
Seize opportunities Wait for opportunities
Like immediate gratification Has learned to wait
Ask, "What's the deal?"2 Ask, "Who's in charge?"
See the evolving workplace as the workplace of the future, where knowing the rewards for a job well done ahead of time is a priority, where directness, boldness and cutting to the chase are integral to who they are. Tend to believe that things will get back to "normal," that the current situation is a short-term problem and that the "kids" will grow up and settle down.


Perhaps the most fundamental dynamic that faces us in this very real workplace drama is the following:

The very forces that are shaping our culture and the new economy are the very forces that have shaped Generation X. Managers need Generation-Xers for their intellectual capital and, by implication, have to contend with their style and values.

While the Boomer generation took commitment as part of their job world, Gen-Xers see it differently. The downsizings in the 1990s closed that door. Let's call it the shadow side of downsizing. "Generation X witnessed this lack of dedication and took copious notes. ... The way the latest generation of workers see it, commitment is a two-way street: Employers commit to supporting their employees; employees dedicate themselves to the success of their employer."2 The Boomers really struggle with why Gen-Xers demand so much and yet do not display loyalty. The answer to that struggle is in the Gen-Xers' thinking, as a result of the 1990s' layoffs: "Why work longer than nine to five, if, when the going gets tough, the boss sends me packing." As writer Vic Roberts puts it: "Xers just want their bosses to let them know: 'What's the deal?' Maybe that question should be rephrased to say 'Where's the commitment?'"2

However frustrating, Generation-Xers bring to the new workplace precisely the ingredients that are needed for future success: employees who are flexible, adaptable, techno-literate, and understanding that a job for life doesn't exist any more.

The Bridge Builders: Toxic Handlers

A new kind of hero has emerged in the new workplace as well. This person is known as the "toxic handler" – the person who acts as a buffer among the discordant voices.3 "Managers who take on the role of informal corporate healer perform a great service -- from helping staff stay focused during difficult times or protecting them from abusive bosses. But often, they pay a huge personal price."4

I have given one case situation of obvious conflict in the new workplace: that between the Boomer mindset and the Generation-X mindset. The conflict needs to be handled well. But another source of great tension that also needs the toxic handler to intervene, or be present to, is the abusive manager. Ask yourself: "Who is the office shock absorber when employees are frustrated and angry?" For years I gave talks on what I called "The Complain-Explain Index" (or CEI). The CEI was a way I described to audiences what typically happens when office pain and anger are not processed well. Employee X meets employee Y. X asks, "How are you doing?" Y responds, … and the complaint begins, with its more or less long explanation. Then Y says, "Oh well, what can you do about? Take care now!" Y then goes off and meets employee Z, and the cycle is repeated.

Toxic handlers help by listening to peoples' distress. This role, of course, is quite informal in the organization and if these corporate healers are not careful, they can get burned out very quickly.

  • They alleviate organizational pain (an EQ competency).
  • They listen empathically (an EQ competency).
  • They suggest solutions and help solve problems (an EQ competency).
  • They are proactive about organizational pain and look for ways to prevent it.
  • They keep confidences so that employees trust them with their secrets.
  • They are expert at reframing messages: both the context and the content.

The new workplace is a challenge for all of us. It is new mental and emotional territory and demands the best we can give, personally and professionally. Toxic handlers work at healing organizational pain, but they are also wounded healers. Their mission is great; so is their service.

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