Connecting To Meet Today's Challenges

Blending Generations in the Nonprofit Sector

Exploring the Managerial Shift in the Workplace

by Donna L. Haeger

Blending Generations in the Nonprofit Sector

An unprecedented trend is emerging in the nonprofit sector. Young people are assuming leadership positions that require them to oversee workers much older than themselves. At the start of 2014, the workplace will host five generations; with the newest cohort comprising almost half of the workforce. The result will be fewer managers over the age of forty. An influx of young employees into management positions spurs concern at all levels about how new young managers can effectively lead workers who are the age of their parents. Concerns are also raised about how older employees will react and respond to being managed by people the same age as their children.  The entire supervisor/subordinate relationship dynamic has been inverted! This is critical since research shows that differences between manager and employee age can effect worker perceptions[1], work environment, expectations and supervisor ratings.[2] Management quality and leadership effectiveness are the heart of successful nonprofit bodies.  At the core of these enterprises are people and interactions that allow for fruitful exchanges that foster attainment of objectives and initiatives benefiting society as a whole.  Addressing this new workforce dynamic will be vital to successfully addressing management challenges and leadership effectiveness. Join me as we uncover differences that are causing a growing lack of equilibrium between manager norms and worker norms when there is a significant age differential.  We call these phenomena Generational Normative Collisions. They are many and growing and it is imperative that we identify, explore them layer by layer and share what we find. Armed with this knowledge we will have the capacity to blend the differences into areas where strengths will have the greatest positive impact.  In sharing what we know with each other we will cultivate a blended understanding that transcends age group and promotes harmony between people and process.

Age and Workplace Interactions

In pursuit of my doctoral degree at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, I had the opportunity to make my interest in workplace chronology a reality.  My advisor and friend, Tony Lingham, and I conducted a nationwide study to uncover specific leadership patterns emerging in the workplace.[3]  We chose this unique area of study because we have no doubt that these patterns—generational normative collisions--will evolve within the next few years and beyond as five generations share the workplace.  This demographic change and the resulting “collisions” prompted us to begin thinking about diversity from a slightly different vantage point. Our observations were that seemingly differing approaches and expectations at work were generalized around age groups.  We explored age as an aspect of workforce diversity and chose to look at this dynamic from a leader and led perspective. In other words, how is this chronological shift impacting both managers and subordinates?

We already know that our young generation of workers is a group of tech savvy, multi-taskers.  Older workers have experience in their fields and a strong work ethic.  These abilities have been the focus of a plethora of research papers and articles that showcase the distinction among age groups.  Our goal was to look deeper into these distinctions and surface not simply an “us versus them” list of traits or characteristics, but highlight where a lack of congruence might emerge between young managers working with older workers in lieu of these differences.  The goal was to create a shared understanding between professionals co-located in a work environment with a passion for nonprofit sustainability.  Before we could begin to cultivate a shared understanding we needed to find the misunderstandings or collisions; many of which go unrecognized by all parties. We focused on employees seeking positive outcomes and revealed some not so similar points of view between the different age groups. Our findings pointed to starkly different approaches to the most commonly experienced workplace interactions. The result was a collision of approach and expectation between the manager and subordinate.

Age and Workplace Expectations

The patterns most prevalent were in the areas of communication, conflict management, and task and relationship density.  In our study we looked at people under the age of 36 responsible for managing a team that consisted of some members who were at least 20 years older than the leader.  The fascinating findings that surfaced were the differences in approach and expectation between leader and member, as well as how the generations define and utilize elements of trust and relationship development – leading to collisions from unshared understandings or beliefs.  We observed misaligned perspective or intent between the supervisor and subordinate resulting in poor outcomes a host of areas that shall be discussed as this column moves forward. Regardless of how these collisions manifest, they evolve into lack of harmony, and poor working relationships that can potentially ruin growth aspirations for an organization from a holistic perspective.  Holistically speaking, it is not enough to concern ourselves with the supervisor and subordinate dyad. It is imperative to consider how this breakdown in a one to one relationship can exponentially affect an entire entity, its growth and its survival.  Quality interactions cultivate both leader and member successes which serves to sustain movement toward strategic initiatives in the nonprofit sector.  What we suggest from our findings is that leader and subordinate relationships lay the groundwork for success in nonprofit organizations and are the root of a healthy culture which ultimately leads to an environment that can support strategic and innovative success.

Supervisor/Subordinate Communication

We began with observations related to how people communicate and if it is synchronous or asynchronous.  Synchronous communication is characterized by the simultaneous presence of both parties and asynchronous is just the opposite.  We start our inquiry around what tools are used, whether or not everyone uses the same tools and what occurs if two people don’t use the same mode or method.  How can users of different forms of communication bridge this communication gap?  Communication differences are characterized by fundamental beliefs and modes of the sender and receiver.  A supervisor will typically manage things based on their perception, background, education, and experience. A subordinate will respond and carry out tasks based on the same criteria.  Fundamentally, this looks like a clearly-aligned workforce, but in reality age differences generate a very different picture.

If a supervisor’s approach to communication is not consistent with the expectations of the subordinate, what is the result? Our research repeatedly showed that a supervisor could not get some subordinates to check their email.  Interestingly enough, this fell at both ends of the spectrum as older employees preferred a phone call or face-to-face reminder and the young workers preferred receiving a text message or a social media post.  Ultimately, the supervisor sending email had to verbally or textually prompt employees to read the email. Some did so and others did not. This scenario became particularly problematic when supervisors were responsible for employees at more than one location that made it impossible to verbally communicate in a face-to-face or synchronous manner with everyone on a regular basis, if at all. Asynchronous communication was not as great an issue for the younger generational members as it was for the older ones.  A key question remains: Are the young supervisors aware of this incongruence such that they might address it in a meaningful way?

An Illustration of Generational Normative Collisions

We have said that these collisions go unrecognized, because when approach and expectation do not align both parties are left scratching their heads. A manager approaches an employee in one way, but it is not the way the employee expects.  The employee is unresponsive waiting for the expected approach.  The manager responds by delivering the same approach unaware it is lost on the employee.  What do these collisions look like exactly?  One subordinate that we interviewed had this to say: “…I’ve never worked with a demographic that verbally and on paper communicates so little”.  She reported that there was“…very little face-to-face unless requested by subordinate”. She ended her description of interactions with her younger manager by simply stating, “No communication.”

In this scenario our subordinate has certain expectations about how her manager will communicate with her.  She expects verbal, face-to-face or written exchanges.  Later in the interview we uncovered that the manager behaviors were rooted in instant messaging and texting in order to communicate with the team and delegate tasks.  This approach did not align with our subordinate and thus we see a generational normative collision.  The subordinate perceived that no communication is happening and yet we see that attempt is made.  Neither party is wrong in this example.  We are simply stating the differences in order to showcase the lost opportunity for two employees (supervisor and subordinate) to connect in a manner that moves the organization toward its goals. 

Another incongruence we found was when meetings were both individual and at the team level face-to-face.  How meetings were approached by members of different ages was in stark contrast.  An observer indicated, “I have noticed that my [younger] professionals – they don’t hesitate for a second to shoot me an email or question any time of the day whatsoever.  But I would say the [older workers], they feel like they [have to] follow some sort of protocol, and they [have to] go through getting on my calendar, meeting face-to-face – part of it’s for their preference, and part of it is they feel like they have to follow a certain protocol’.  It was noted that younger members continued to multi task during the meeting while the older members were more participative in the conversations. An observer noted, “I noticed that ..., some of my younger generation, they [run] a meeting pretty quick.  Even if the meeting’s scheduled for an hour …., they’ll leverage their email and other things … so that when we meet it goes by pretty quick.  On the other hand, “…my … more senior [older] staff, if you will, they like the conversation.  They like to [talk] and they like to really have more time to really think things through, whereas I don’t notice that as much with my [younger] professionals.”  It was clear from speaking with both supervisors and subordinates that both parties had the potential to leave meetings feeling frustrated, but for completely different reasons.  For the older participants it was due to lack of attention and perceived hurried nature of the younger members and for the younger it was due to being confined to one space to discuss issues for far too long.  This incongruence was summed up by one person this way: “I will say the [younger] professionals want more frequent touch points with me, but they’re not as long, if that makes sense.

Finally, communication in the form of employee development also bears some attention as older subordinates expect advocacy from their managers and managers are proponents for self-promotion.  This is evident in the following excerpts from our interviews.  Subordinate: “I’ll talk to him and say, could you talk to the director about this or that and he’ll say, “Yeah, I will.  That’s a good idea.”  And then maybe a couple of weeks later, I’ll actually see the director of operations and nothing was ever mentioned to him.” Supervisor: “And then, hey, what the heck’s [older subordinate] doing, you know, we don’t hear from him, and so yeah, he was having a real tough time, because he’s not the kind of person that likes to self-promote”.

What makes generational differences paramount to the success of a nonprofit? Joshi argues that “…regardless of how generations may be conceptualized, the chronological interdependencies between individuals representing multiple generations are the basis for transmission of skills, knowledge, ideas, values and experiences in organizations”.[4]  This challenges the fate of relations among employees in nonprofit organizations as well as the fate of these enterprises as a sustainable system.

Share Your Experiences

As we move deeper into this exploration, we will begin to frame what Generational Normative Collisions mean for teams and team development.  What assessments might be useful to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a multi-generational team?  What interventions might we use to improve the team’s effectiveness based on what we know?

I invite readers to submit experiences and observations that relate to collisions in the workplace.  We are specifically interested in those areas where there is “age dynamic” at play. Tell us what you see! The key is shared understanding as well as an open attitude when it comes to generational differences and addressing Generational Normative Collision. In the LNO newsletters that follow, we will begin to unfold specific distinctions that exist between the generations and highlight that generational cohorts possess strengths that move a nonprofit forward. The key is to create an environment that embraces the differences and seeks a well-rounded group.  A well- rounded group requires a culture that accepts differences and supports synergies where strengths are utilized, differences cultivated and core competencies applied to areas where they will showcase and support the success of the enterprise. A bi-directional understanding between the generational cohorts will serve to create a “universal language” of sorts that will bridge the gaps that are sure to swell in the coming years.

[1] Pelletier, R. (2005). Younger Managers; Older Workers. Occupational Health & Safety.

[2] Shore, L. M. (2003). Work Attitutdes and Decisions as a Function of Manager Age and Employee Age. Journal of Applied Psychology.

[3] Haeger, D., & Lingham, T. (2011). Emerging Patterns in 21st Century Leadership: an Exploration of Generational Normative Collisions. Unpublished manuscript.

[4] Joshi, A. D. (2010). Unpacking Generational Identities in Organizations. Academy of Management Review.

posted August 14, 2012

Donna L. Haeger is the Managing Director for Prolific Technology, Inc. and a management professional with over 20 years of experience working with people and process.  She and her business are dedicated to “Cultivating Business Synergy by Blending Human and Technical Systems”.  Donna accomplishes this through coaching, research, education and publication.  She is also a Ph.D. in Management student at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, an adjunct instructor in Management Education in Upstate New York and an Advanced Subject Matter Expert for McGraw Hill Publishing.  As an ASM, Donna authors online educational content contributing to management textbook companion websites resulting in state of the art online interactive activities for students in Higher Education. Professor Haeger gives special thanks to Solange Charas, Deirdre Dixon and Jimeka Holloway for their efforts in the review of this submission.