Aligning People: A Leader’s Greatest Challenge
Part I: Understanding the Obstacles
Today’s working environment is an entirely different beast to any that’s gone before. We have more generations in the workforce and a greater focus on life choices, travel and experience. Personal status is no longer determined by job role, and it’s vogue to hate work.
Add to that our (relatively) recent economic woes and the uncertainty of the job market, and it’s little wonder alignment is a thorn in the side of leaders up and down the country. So, what are the alignment challenges facing leaders, and how can we overcome them?
1. Mind The Generation Gap
For the first time in history, we have multiple generations in the workforce. Millennials are working alongside Generation X’s and more than a few hierarchical Baby Boomers, many nearing retirement age. In this one-size-fits-one environment, any approach to alignment must consider the motivations and needs of each of these groups.
These guys are work oriented. They are motivated by wealth and rank, define success by hours logged, and believe in working their way up the corporate ladder. Baby Boomers are committed to their organisation and often serve long tenures in one company2. Most significantly for business, they actively avoid confrontation and will often prioritise process over results3.
In direct contrast to the generation above them, Xs favour a ‘hands off’ management approach. Technologically literate, this group have an aversion to risk, can be sceptical of management and are happy to consider lateral progression over the traditional ‘upwards’ promotion².
Caught between progressive Millennials and traditional Baby Boomers, Gen X is a useful workforce intermediary. Baby Boomers labelled them ‘slackers’, in reality, they are the pioneers of the work-life balance4. Most telling of all, their flexibility and excellent communication skills mean that both Baby Boomers and Millennials consider this group the best at generating revenue and managing teams1.
Now the dominant generation in the workforce1, Millennials boast technical skills that surpass either of the generations before them. They distrust bureaucracy, hop willingly between jobs, and will sacrifice income for a better work-life balance2. Digital natives, they expect instant access to learning and information — a point of contention between this group and Baby Boomers, who respect the traditional, ‘top-down’ distribution of information1.
2. Everyone Hates Work, Right?
We’ve seen a huge change in social attitudes to the workplace over the last 30 years. Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, more and more Australians are working from home, and a whopping 38% of Millennials work freelance. But that isn’t the only change.
TV shows regularly depict the soul-crushing tedium of the 9-5 (think Simpsons and The Office), while the internet is littered with ‘Happy Friday’ memes designed to reinforce the monotony of working life. Pop culture has painted such a negative view of work that it’s now commonplace to hate your job. With the world telling us to live for the weekend and endure the week, leaders are facing an uphill struggle to convince employees they have an essential role to play in a rewarding environment.
3. Money, Money, Money
Independent and relatively wealthy, Generation Xs can afford to pursue career changes. They are flexible enough to think laterally, and will likely avoid or leave roles they don’t enjoy. At the other end of the scale, Millennials are less financially secure and display a greater level of flexibility, with many freelancing alongside their day jobs. Unlike Baby Boomers, both generations are less financially reliant on a single employer, and require more than simply a paycheque to commit long-term.
This, coupled with the disruption introduced by innovative technologies and the turbulence of the financial market, has served to decrease the average employee tenure6. Workers no longer commit entire careers to one organisation, and many will hold roles in multiple industries before they retire7. A reaction to boom and bust cycles, and the resulting redundancies, mergers and acquisitions, these behaviours mean that alignment strategies must be robust enough to handle staff turnover while addressing underlying issues surrounding engagement and productivity.
4. You’re How Old?!
Baby Boomers were hit hardest by the recession, experiencing the most redundancies, pay cuts and investment losses. The resulting financial insecurity will mean many continue to work long after retirement age5.
While a longer tenure benefits employers — we retain essential skills and knowledge — it poses a significant threat to engagement. Working beyond retirement can result in an (understandable) negativity towards work. As the workplace becomes more Millennial orientated, and the first Generation Zs make an appearance, ensuring Baby Boomers feel included and valued will present one of the biggest challenges for alignment.
To Sum Up…
Aligning every worker to a broader organisational purpose offers advantages across the board. But alignment is a target that’s becoming increasingly difficult to hit, with workplace disruption making aligning employees to organisational goals more challenging than ever. Luckily, we have the answers to meeting these challenges in Part II. Stay tuned!
1Bursch. 2014. Managing the multigenerational workplace. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.
2Dowd-Higgins. 2013. How to play together in the multi-generational sandbox at work. Huffington Post.
3Murphy. 2007. Leading a Multigenerational Workforce. AARP.
4American Management Association. 2014. Leading the four generations at work.
5Laham. 2015. Peace, love and no retirement in sight: why so many baby boomers must keep working.Huffington Post.
6Bidwell. 2013. What happened to long-term employment? The role of worker power and environmental turbulence in explaining declines in worker tenure. Organization Science
7PWC. 2014. Millennials at work: reshaping the workplace. PWC.