“The human brain is wired to adapt to what the environment around it requires for survival.  Today and in the future it will not be as important to internalise information but to elastically be able to take multiple sources of information in, synthesise them, and make rapid decisions.”

Amber Case, Cyber Anthropologist ( 1 )

I have spent over 20 years working with a broad range of organisations. In that time the organisations have been across a range of sectors and geographies. I have experienced great changes in technology, office environments, norms around geographic proximity, behaviour and social changes. I have seen organisations evolve in their attitudes and behaviours towards many forms of diversity. However, I believe many are trailing behind on generational differences.

The backdrop for the Gen Y and Gen Z, our Digital Generations, is well documented:

  • consuming technology from a young age as a way to keep a child quiet
  • parents and teachers using a lot of positive re-enforcement
  • thousands of ‘likes’ per month on social media posts
  • ‘everyone’s a winner!’ mindset
  • not experiencing delayed gratification because so much is instant
  • fast access to information (though not necessarily accurate information)
  • bite size consumption of information
  • electronic communications in relationships from which you can log off from when it becomes awkward.

Of course, there are downsides when a generation that is living through the cocktail above enters the workplace – the need for instant gratification probably being the most hotly debated.  This manifests itself as a strong desire for feedback soon after an event, a desire to share lots and of course wanting instant reactions to what they have shared.  Indeed, when I am facilitating senior teams, I generally hear two downsides to every upside; and in some organisations a reluctance to acknowledge any positives about the new generation entering the workplace.

Amber Case also delivered an interesting TED Talk on ‘We’re all Cyborgs Now’; the idea that today’s humans are using technology to adapt to their environment and digital devices have become an extension of our mental ‘self’.  Our phones becoming the means by which we manage relationships, plan our day and even store our memories.  Without all that data, we’d be lost.  Digital connectivity is driving a whole new societal culture and with it comes new rituals, behaviours and ways of interacting.

So as Gen Y start moving into senior positions and Gen Z enters the workforce, they bring with them all these different ways of working which inevitably impacts organisational culture.  Whilst some organisations are embracing the diversities of different generations, others are resisting or simply ignoring what’s coming.

This new injection of Digital Pioneers presents real opportunities for innovation – their ideas unfettered by years of ‘corporate control’.  However, working with people who approach things from such different perspectives can be challenging.  Let me give you an example:

The same scenario can be interpreted in different ways by different generations. A Sales Director was getting wound up because he thought one of his sales people was spending too much time on Whats App rather than on the phone.  He told her to hit her phone call target each week and she replied that some people respond better to electronic communications – which he rejected.  His interpretation of her behaviour was laziness and not hitting a target.  Her view was that she had a much higher response rate from some customers using Whats App than phoning them.  His view was that she had to call them more often until she gets through… and so it went on…

The sales director’s response to being challenged on understanding generational differences is to repeat over and over again how he got to where he got to.  He is good at finding evidence to support his view and ignoring evidence that goes against his personal beliefs.  He is right – ratios in sales work.  He is also wrong because he believes that you must apply exactly the same formula, in exactly the same way as in 1992.  Technology in 2017 is completely different from 1992 and the relationship people have with technology has changed.


Reverse Mentoring: Cross Generational Working

By contrast, in another organisation a CEO encourages ‘Reverse Mentoring’.  The CEO of this organisation knows that he has to connect with younger generations – both staff and customers.  Reverse mentoring is based on the premise that one of the downsides of being at the older end of the workforce is that you have less exposure to the younger end of the workforce and of course younger customers. Coca Cola encourages cross-generational relationships.  As part of their Millennial voices group they encourage more open dialogue between senior leaders and millennials and reverse mentoring is a part of it.  Reverse mentoring does not have to be restricted to being within an organisation and there can be benefits of cross sector reverse mentoring.

Typical benefits of reverse mentoring include:

  • Closing knowledge gaps e.g. The ‘seasoned executive’ learns more about technology and the Millennial learns more about the commercial application of the technology
  • ‘Us’ and ‘them’ becomes more of a two-way street
  • Executive learns about future trends today, Millennial learns from past trends
  • The Millennial learns about the executive’s business radar which they would not normally get exposure to.

A big focus of our work at OE Cam is on supporting organisations to innovate more effectively. This can be part of growth, adaptation and in some cases survival.  Very often people think it is just about bringing the outside in. However, reverse mentoring is a very low cost way to leverage what you have and something we encourage as part of wider cross-generation innovation.

Younger generations are increasingly using technology as extensions of their mental selves.  This leads to different behaviours both as employees and the way they work; and as customers and how they shop and consume.  I can still recall in the late 1990s a lawyer telling me that websites won’t catch on with law firms, a banker saying that the customers won’t want to transfer money online and a retailer saying that people won’t want to buy fruit and veg online.

The Amber Case quote at the start emphasises that the brain is wired to adapt to the environment for survival. Effective leadership behaviour is akin to wiring an organisation to adapt to thrive or at least survive. I can see some organisations that are wired to adapt but I also see many that are not…

The cyborgs are coming; perhaps they have arrived and you can fight them or learn how to adapt from them.  Take your pick!

“so as Gen Y start moving into senior positions and Gen Z enters the workforce, they bring with them all these different ways of working which inevitably impacts organisational culture”