Why Generational Profiling Is Bad Management

Last Updated May 5, 2010 8:14 PM EDT

Generation GapWhen I grew up, we had something called the generation gap. The peace and love generation fought with their conservative parents over everything from politics and fashion to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But as my generation hit the workplace, all that controversy seemed to melt away. Work was work, business was business.

Thinking back on it, I guess I learned management and leadership skills from my parent's generation. It's interesting that it never occurred to me until now.

Today, it's no different. Sure, we have two gaps instead of one -- between baby boomers, generation x, and generation y -- but otherwise, it's pretty much the same sort of thing, except for one glaring difference. Today, there are dozens of books and thousands of blogs and articles, not just about the difference between the generations, but about why, from a management standpoint, it matters.

I couldn't disagree more.
Don't get me wrong. If you're a marketer, demographics matter. If you find generational impact on business norms insightful, that's great. And if you're an individual who wants to read about why you're the way you are, identify with a generational group, and chat or whatever with like-minded folks, have at it.

What I'm talking about is massive group think coming from management experts, "gurus," bloggers, and academic researchers who all seem to agree that generational differences should be important to management. Here's an example of what I'm talking about, a very popular post from BNET's The View from Harvard Business, by Sean Silverthorne:

Gen X Is Unhappy at Work
Workers in their 30s and early 40s, otherwise known as Generation X, are growing unhappy with corporate life and planning a retreat, says Tammy Erickson, an expert on generational work force issues.

That's bad news for their employers, who are looking to this cohort as next generation leaders.

And for Gen X employers, what are you seeing inside your own organizations? Are you leaking Xers? What should you be doing to keep them?

Another headache for Xers? Managing those darn Gen Y kids. For help bridging the generational divide, see our feature package Managing Millennials: A BNET Survival Guide. Here's how to get the best out of your youngest workers.

Wow, where to begin. To me, all this discourse is a ludicrous distraction from what managers should be focusing on. I think it's bad management and bad for business. Here's why:

This is, without a doubt, the most globally competitive market in history. American executives and entrepreneurs are in the midst of complex and challenging competitive warfare with each other, as well as powerful companies from the likes of China, Japan, and Korea. If I'm running a company these days, I want my management team focused on business. For example, I would want my sales VP to focus on:

  • Revenue growth
  • Competitive analysis
  • Getting repeat business from key customers
  • Winning new customers and presales support
  • Initiating and/or expanding operations in specific markets and geographies
  • Servicing existing customers
  • Providing feedback to and getting support from product marketing and development
  • Budget and compensation matters with finance and HR
  • Ensuring sales people are motivated and incentivized with compensation goals aligned with the rest of the organization
  • Recruiting talent and succession planning
Anything that distracts from those priorities is bad for business. Now, some might say that generationally profiling employees fits into the "motivating and incentivizing" or "recruting talent" bullets. Fine. Let me ask you this:

Would you characterize your employees by gender, age, race, religion, or in any other way when it comes to managing them and enabling them to be successful at their jobs? Of course not. And I'm not talking about verbally or publicly. I'm talking about when you sit down to do their review, determine their raise, have a one-on-one, or interview them, would you take any of that stuff into account? Again, of course not.

You know why? Because there are at least a dozen more important and relevant factors, like job performance, experience, knowledge, team work, etc. The only profiling I'm aware of in the real business world has to do with multinational companies managing workforces in other countries where employment law, compensation, and culture are different. To me, that makes sense.

But profiling groups by generation is ridiculous, no matter what the management researchers and gurus say. Not to mention that it's dehumanizing. Granted, I'm a consultant who's been out of the management ranks for seven years now, so maybe I've missed something. What do you say, readers: Have I missed something?

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