INTRODUCTION: FROM THE REORG TO THE REMIX
Mention organizational change in any hallway, e-mail inbox, or Slack channel of any workplace in America, and you'll likely receive a collective groan and eye roll.
"We know the drill," seasoned employees will say as they prepare for announcements of revised and re-revised business priorities, shuffled leadership teams, and, of course, budget cuts and layoffs. As one longtime manager recently commented to me, "I've been re-orged so many times, at this point I could probably report to a dog."
Isn't it about time we find a less cynical, more optimistic approach to workplace change?
What if a new group of workers came along with more positive expectations of how change will affect their organizations and careers? What if organizations began to listen to and embrace this new group's mindset? What if even long-tenured, "jaded" employees felt that change was actually an opportunity to deploy their knowledge and experience in new and exciting ways? What if organizations found a way to integrate these two perspectives to create exponential success?
All these things are possible because all these things are already happening. I've been witnessing this more constructive, collaborative approach to change starting to take place over the past several years. The catalyst is the unprecedented generational overlap that is taking place in American business today.
Now that Millennials—comprising those born between approximately 1981 and 1996—have officially become the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, and Generation Z workers—those born in 1997 and later, the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history—are entering the labor force in large numbers, leaders and organizations have had little choice but to begin embracing new ways of working that appeal to younger, digital-first generations. At the same time, they must continue to appeal to members of the massive Baby Boomer generation, who are responsible for so many decades of success and are still going strong today.
While some companies are embracing the multigenerational mix, most organizations are struggling to appeal to all generations of employees at once. Today's employers say they want people with experience but complain that experienced workers are more expensive and stuck in their ways. Employers say they want people with bleeding-edge tech skills but lament that the young people with those skills don't always have the professional savvy they desire. As one painfully true job search Internet meme declared, "We're looking for someone aged 22 to 26, with 30 years of experience."
As a result, few feel entirely wanted and many are on the defensive. I encounter this all too often in organizations that invite me to consult or speak: Traditionalists and Baby Boomers feel like they're being elbowed out for younger workers. Millennials and Gen Zs feel like they're being held to an unfair standard. And Gen Xers—don't forget about Gen Xers—feel caught in the crossfire or ignored entirely.
All this tension, even if it stays below the surface, has an impact on how we show up as employees, managers, and leaders, and on the work we are capable of accomplishing together. Festering intergenerational resentment and insecurity is a threat to the success of our organizations and our individual careers.
Add to this generational tension the fact that we are currently living through an era of ever-greater disruptions—what the U.S. Army War College termed VUCA—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. As leaders in a time of VUCA, we need to think about all the ways the tentacles of disruption affect every area of how we hire, manage, engage, and retain talent in our organizations.
The workplace can even serve as a microcosm for the larger issues facing our country. Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck & Co. and the most prominent African American chief executive in the country, has said, "If you look around at what's happening in our society, there's more division than I think I can ever remember....I actually think the workplace is the last place in our society where people can't choose necessarily who they work with."
This raises the stakes for leaders even more. The choices we make in our workplaces can impact the very feelings people have about our shared society. If we can get every generation feeling valued and pulling in the same direction at work, maybe we can do this on a larger scale. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning and what I want to share with you.
I have spent many years studying even the tiniest details of successful intergenerational teams and organizations to learn what makes them different. How do they thrive in times of change?