Relating To Different Age Cycles

In the last column, Strauss and Howe’s theory of history repeating itself every fourth generation was discussed. Those generations, Hero, Silent, Prophet, and Nomad, have different values and driving forces. We like to say we treat all employees the same but in fact, we dare not. They are different people from different times.

Behavior of people within our organizations changes with the changing cycles, and with it, management style must change. Kurt Lewin identified three major leadership styles; authoritarian, participative, and delegative.

Authoritarian leaders provide clear expectations to group members on what should be done, when it should be completed, and how it should be accomplished. Frederick Winslow Taylor was the foremost expert on this leadership style. His time and motion studies were a small part of his teachings but became attached to his name. These authoritarian leaders make decisions without input from group members. It worked well with the Silent generation following WWII as exemplified by the book and movie, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Over use of an authoritarian style can be construed as bossy and controlling. Worst-case examples of this style can be seen when leaders utilize bullying techniques such as yelling, abusive power, or demeaning of group members.

Participative leaders accept input from one or more group members when making decisions and solving problems, but the leader retains the final say when choices are made. Group members tend to be encouraged and motivated by this style of leadership. It often leads to more effective and accurate decisions, since no leader can be an expert in all areas. Input from group members with specialized knowledge and expertise creates a more complete basis for decision- making. This leadership style resonates with the Artist and Prophet generations.

Delegative leaders allow group members to make decisions. This style is best used in situations where the leader needs to rely on qualified employees. The leader may not have the most expertise in all situations or be available when immediate decisions must be made. It is important to delegate certain tasks out to knowledgeable and trustworthy employees. These employees match the characteristics of the Hero generation.

The complexity of technology today almost demands use of the delegative style but occasions can require utilization of all three styles, depending on the situation, for example:

  • Use an authoritative style if a group member lacks knowledge about a certain procedure.
  • Use a participative style with group members who understand the objectives and their role in the task.
  • Use a delegative style if the group member knows more than the leader about the task.

Group leaders need to adapt and change based upon the objectives, needs of group members, and situational factors. Needs can be real or perceived and both need to be understood by the effective leader. The current generation of the majority of workers, Hero, Silent, Prophet, or Nomad, largely shapes perceived needs.

Just like we need to understand the needs and wants of our customers, we need to understand the needs and wants of our employees. Not all are the same and their age group largely impacts their behavioral traits.