I reflected recently on some of the unexpected challenges I’ve had in the workplace. I realized that some of them were due to generational differences between the baby boomers and the younger generations. I want to bring the care and concern that the baby boomer leaders I knew who influenced and counseled me, but also be more mindful of these generational differences as Generation Z enters the workforce.
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Generational Differences: Getting a Haircut
I have been told three times since starting my professional career to get a haircut. I’m a dude with long curly brown hair and have kept it long since college. Many people know me because of my hair and it’s the only thing about my appearance that I am particularly vain about.
The very first time, I was consulting to a fortune 25 company in their financial systems transformation and had been an integral part of the team for more than a year. The new VP from the client told me that I should have a more professional appearance and that I needed a hair cut. I eventually gave in and cut it short – and I regretted it – and regrew it long as soon as that project was over. I felt like a part of me was gone and had just a little less confidence.
The second time, I was looking for a job and had two offers from two different consulting firms. One wanted me to come in at a lower level, pay me less, and get a haircut. The second firm I had worked for before and had strong relationships inside and no preconditions on me joining. The first actually had a better reputation for culture – but I wasn’t going to go to someplace where the first conversation was getting a haircut. I picked the second firm where I knew there would at least value me for who I was more.
I started to notice a shift in how my hair was commented on when I bumped into the CIO at a client in the hallway after presenting to him and a larger group. He asked me if I was going for rock star with the hair, and I responded that I really was going for intense IT nerd. The CIO laughed and responded that’s what he needed. After that, I never really had a problem.
It took me a long time to notice the trend, but each person who told me to get a haircut were from the baby boomer generation, and the CIO who commented positively was from Gen X. And that trend has generally been true. Each of the people who commented were trying in their own way to be supportive of my career – the leaders from the baby boom didn’t care any less about me – but they had different values of what professionalism meant and how to express it in the workplace.
I don’t think the baby boomer leaders realized how off putting it was to me when they told me to get a haircut. And likewise, I took it as a personal affront and I didn’t realize that their ask was coming from a good place. This generational difference caused us to not see eye to eye and probably cut me off from opportunities and places where I could be a really strong contributor.
Putting the H in ADHD
I am incredibly hyperactive – I don’t sit still for any length of time and will usually fidget no matter how engaged I am in a conversation or what I’m discussing with a person. My hyperactivity and fidgetiness forms the basis for an ADHD diagnosis. It is frustrating to me to not sit still and it can be distracting to people I interact with. At times, I’ve been medicated and times, I have not – stimulants are a tricky balance to not have annoying side effects or generate tolerance while still getting the right level of focus. Not surprisingly, my hyperactivity has caused some discomfort in the workplace as well.
The first time being so hyperactive came up was when I worked for a large retailer. One of the interviews was with a director, I was spinning the chair next to me the whole time I was in the interview. The director thought I was great except for the chair spinning. So I was put through an extra interview round to ensure that I was suitable. I got the job and continued on to have a really good run.
A second time was for the same company – where a consultant who was respected and staffing multiple people – pulled me aside after a meeting and told me that my fidgeting was distracting in the meeting and I should try to sit still. I was really upset at the time. The contractor was trying to give me good advice – he was coming from a good place – but I don’t think he realized that my fidgetiness is not really a 100% controllable thing.
Like my hair, I’ve noticed a similar trend where as the baby boom leadership starts to transition to Gen X leadership, that the new leaders set a tone for more tolerance in the workplace. I’ve noticed with Gen X and the elder Millennials that I work with, that there is more understanding of ADHD and probably a bit more grace given. Just like my hair, the leaders who have counseled me to not fidget so much were giving advice from a good place, but maybe their advice fell short and caused more problems for me. The generational difference between the baby boomers and millennials was significant and impacted how we saw the workplace.
Generational Differences: Generation Z entering the Workforce
When I first started in consulting out of college, there was a training on the generational differences between Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials. The training navigated through re-enactment of the generational beliefs and experiences of all three characters in the workplace. And the key thrust was that each generation has to find a way to successfully navigate with one another through open communication and an open mind to be open another’s life experiences.
Generation Z is starting to enter the workforce in places where I work and volunteer. I was startled first because I am no longer the young gun that I think of myself as – and I’m no longer in the youngest cohort at the office. Generation Z is here and have many similar values but also some significant generational differences than the Gen X and Millennials that currently occupy much of the workforce.
As a leader, I’m thinking carefully about what are the values that I hold, what are the values that Gen Z holds, and how do I navigate those generational differences in the workplace. I want to be sure that I focus on the coaching and guidance that matters to Gen Z so that they grow, while being mindful of how they may have different experiences and values in their generation.