The young guys are frustrated, and the old guys aren’t “allowed to get mad.” Here’s what one behind-the-scenes observer would like to tell them both.
As a smack-in-the-middle player, kind of in management and kind of not, I’ve observed the behaviors of older and younger men I’ve worked with over the years. With the stealth of a lioness tucked under the brush I’ve noted the posturing, ego jockeying, the precise positioning at the conference table.
To me, work is a culture within its own society, where the upper echelon becomes the government. It is interesting to witness the manner in which the old guard and the new guard try to play together, sometimes frustration bubbles up from the fresh eager beavers, who froth with ideas for improvement, sometimes the old guard casts off a distasteful expression as they wait for a softer approach and respect that in their estimation never comes.
I appreciate both sides of the pickle.
To quote one of the superiors I’ve had in my career, a man quite comfortable dominating the troops,
“The old guy is not allowed to get mad. We are told everything we’ve done is wrong, because it’s what they are teaching this generation in college. So new hires come in and inform us of all the mistakes we’re making, that they can fix it all. When what we have been doing has worked so far.”
He’s a long-time executive, comfortable enough to share his sensitivities that “old guys get blamed for everything.” More than once, he has also advised me to acknowledge business is shit sometimes, but to work with the shit on your plate before trying to improve everything, and to pay a compliment to the person who’s had his hand in the shit long before you. It might be shit, but it’s their shit and they’re proud of it.
The older generation needs respect to precede the barrage of recommendations, to continue to feel vital and useful. I’ve been told this to my face and I felt fortunate to hear it from a member of a business population starting to fade out, to be allowed into his feelings. But as he spoke, I wondered why he couldn’t understand the reason for the blame directed at him, when all I could think was, “Well, of course you’re going to get blamed for everything. You have bogarted the mantle and enjoyed the reign. You complain, yet hold so tight to the scepter. Did you not anticipate the sticky wicket of the hand off?”
I understand why the younger generation is agitated, too, when the ideas they’ve had don’t come to fruition, when they’re discouraged from using current platforms and technology. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a newbie betray their annoyance as their pleas for more budget, faster connections, and improved equipment have fallen on deaf ears. I have wanted to tell them to go easy, that a gift of respect goes a long way toward achieving goals and gaining support.
It’s true, there are many tactics to skin the same darn cat that the old guard has been skinning for decades, but look, they’ve been getting it done, operating a prosperous business in the black. Newbies might argue they were specifically hired to bring ideas and have now hit the wall. I counter that the old guard didn’t anticipate that Gen X’ers and Millennials wouldn’t possess grace and respect, that they hoped those values would supersede pride or obstinacy. I sense imminent scolding, dangling on these distinguished men’s lips, as they study the younger guys, trying to figure them out, and I await the stories of where these men have come from, how it’s relevant to where the company is now.
Throughout my career, I’ve come across three types of young male professionals. Each of these personalities carry positive and negative traits, of course, we all do. All are more than capable of receiving the torch and jogging it to the next stop.
Have you ever reflected on behaviors you’ve seen that have held people back, on instances when you wanted to confide in someone and give them a hint for getting along with people? That’s what this article is for me, because, while there is a lot that they each do well, there are things I wish I could tell them about resolving roadblocks.
- Wallflower Worker. The jewel in the company crown, he is unassuming, a profferer of inspiration; when his back’s against the wall he’ll stand down, which suits his superiors who loathe confrontation. The Wallflower Worker has keyed into his exec’s main objective: productivity, and is regarded as a valuable team player who gains ground. When he dares small, joyful steps forward, I wish I could interject as an angel on his shoulder and tell him to believe in himself more, to speak up louder about his bomb idea. That he is that good.
- The Blaster. Retaining data designed to make businesses explode their profits, the Blaster is quick to point out errors in projects. When he does, I want to encourage him to take a deep breath and be gentle. If he would slow down, listen to the unspoken words in the conversation, if he was cognizant of body language and remembered the struggles of the executives before him who’ve kept the boat afloat, he wouldn’t wear himself out. Getting the validation he craves might be as simple as rearranging his aim to first focus on building relationships, then results.
- The Intellectual Incher. One who might’ve inspired “give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile”, when charged with an initiative, the incher is ready! Ready to rework his superiors’ entire strategy. With a touch more objectivity the Incher could change the company. That’s the secret I long to reveal. He’s a phenom, a tireless, intelligent, yet intimidating man, who overanalyzes everything. His lofty vocabulary is crammed with ambiguous jargon. I challenged an Incher one day to use only lay-person language during a meeting of peers and he happily lost the bet. Justifying the use of his terminology rankled him, he said. A good point, but irrelevant when no one understands what you’re saying.
I want to share ideas for a peaceable office with the old and new guard, but instead, I trundle back to my cube, where I willingly adjust direction in a campaign, roll in last-minute ideas, and give thanks for a position that allows me to create while drinking coffee in my comfy chair. I’ll continue to maneuver the boat through smooth waters, and steer around the wreckage of the generation gap, knowing to speak up isn’t my place. I am not these men, after all. I only observe their struggles. I don’t live them. It must be hard, a bit of a balancing act, I think as I reposition myself in my chair. I still can’t answer the question of what they are trying to prove. All I know is, I would be spent after a day in their shoes. Is that where their valiant effort to be heard originates, as a yearning to end the battle of generations?
I’ll continue to observe from the undergrowth, peace-offer a smile or crack a lame joke to shatter the tension between the generations now and then. I’ll hope for the honesty needed to come at first trickling, then pouring out of both sides, honesty to pave a unique road toward understanding and progress, in and out of the conference room.
Photo: Flickr/Matthew G