Flipping the Switch 3 – Motivating Baby Boomers, part 1

My father’s generation came through the Great Depression and WWII. Because those times were so uncertain, security was, and remained a critical factor for this generation. It might even have been the most relevant, predominant one for them. But companies and parents are learning that there are different factors for Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Gen Y’ers.

“Boomers tend to give themselves over to their jobs,” says Claire Raines, author of “Generations at Work.” They believe in paying dues, playing by the rules and building careers. Their feedback and guidance is indirect and considerate of people’s feelings. “They’re process-oriented,” Raines says. “They’re trained to believe that business results and relationships are intertwined.”

In an article published December 1, 2002, in the Marion (Ohio) Star, writer Jason Jennings reports that American companies spend more than $150 billion on motivational speakers, books, posters, incentive travel, trophies and conventions trying to motivate their employees. For the nation’s 140 million workers that’s more than $1,100 each. Who’s making the decision to spend so much? And on whom are they spending it?

Baby Boomers

The typical company head is usually male and an aging baby boomer. His typical employees however, are not necessarily males, nor are they baby boomers. Therein lays the problem. You and I naturally treat others the way we would like to be treated, the incarnation of the Golden Rule. But what trips my trigger may fire on an empty chamber for someone else.

As noble and effective is the concept, the application requires some thought. The primary interpretation is to treat others the way you want to be treated. But the essence of the thought is to treat others the way THEY want to be treated. If you were them, how would you want you to treat you? Sound confusing? Maybe, but it really isn’t.

The second to last point I made in my previous post was Those who motivate me most know me best.”

Why? Because this is the Golden Rule practiced in real life. It doesn’t really matter how you want to be treated yourself. What matters is how you would want to be treated if you were them.

Let me jump farther back and pick up the opening quote from the very first article in this series. Michael Vance described leadership as:

“the ability to establish standards and manage a creative climate where people are self-motivated toward the mastery of long term constructive goals, in a participatory environment of mutual respect, compatible with personal values.”

Motivation, like every aspect of effective leadership, begins with the perception of the one you want to motivate. Anything else probably means wasted effort and money. The most productive companies in the world spend the least on motivational programs. It turns out they don’t have to. They understand what motivates people of different generations, respects the differences and particulars, and practice adaptive leadership.

Now, let me explain that no two people are exactly alike and I am painting with a wide brush here. The concepts and practices I suggest must be individualized and personalized. They give you a place to start, but don’t assume every Baby Boomer, Gen X’er, or Gen Y’er is a clone of all the others.

Baby Boomers usually and most readily respond to these five things:

1. Hierarchy – the importance of feeling important.

We Boomers favor titles and position. Rank and its relationship to a group in general hold great appeal for us. It motivates us because we can rate ourselves and our progress against a perceived standard, the same one applied to our peers. Everyone needs to feel important and a position within a hierarchy feeds that need. The need for importance is not a negative, debilitating one. We want to know how we’re doing and we’re attracted to the climb up the steps of hierarchy because of the scale it provides on which we can be graded against ourselves and alongside others.

In the first half of life, the need for importance resolves itself in the climb to higher levels of office. Titles and pay raises usually provide enough sense of progress and achievement to keep us energized. But I want to qualify that. As Boomers age, the appeal of hierarchy may be losing some of its impact. Many Boomers have found themselves at the empty end of the rainbow; that the expected pot of gold is unsatisfying and unrewarding.

So many have reversed course and headed for the other end of the rainbow, revaluing relationships, rebuilding marriages strained, and in some cases torn, by their climb up the ladder. They are casting off the trappings of success and achievement that once held such power over us and held so much appeal for them. They seem to be recovering from a decades old case of affluenza and finding new health and vigor elsewhere. So many are redefining their criteria for importance, modifying their search, altering its methodology, rearranging their personal priorities, and pursuing significance on more altruistic terms.

Hierarchy works and it works well, but it takes more than corporate, structured grades to keep a Boomer motivated over the long term. There may be a new standard displacing the old one.

2. Authority – autonomy to make decisions and take action.

Boomers grew up believing we could do anything and we reshaped the world with independence unique to our century and generation. Boomers didn’t just bend society’s rules and culture’s traditions, we mangled them. We tore down revered myths, trampled mores underfoot, and devoured the golden cow. The energy by which we accomplished cultural shift came from a sense of independence and destiny.

As Boomers matured, most abandoned our reckless disregard for structure and systems. Joining the ranks of the gainfully employed, we fell in step with the processes and procedures of the business world. For some it was tantamount to welcoming gypsies into the palace. No long-term adjustment could be found and those Boomers moved on. But most of us made jobs and fiscal responsibility our new cause.

But, the spirit of independence remained alive and well, even if it was somewhat muted by three piece suits and shined shoes. Having cultivated an appetite for autonomy, Boomers responded to authority. That is to say, we want to wield it. We tend to chafe under it. We will endure it for only so long unless we see the real option of gaining enough of it to realize self-rule, i.e., autonomy.

There are many qualifications to be met before your authority can be dispensed reliably to others. There is great peril in doing so to those incapable of wielding it. But everyone wants it and longs to get more of it. Authority finds its beginning and end in the independence we Boomers manifested. Its recklessness has been tempered by time, its idealism framed within the borders of reality, and its abandon channeled by prudence. As this generation ages, this becomes increasingly important.

But it is very much a motivator. If you lead or manage Boomers, find ways to grant more autonomy on every occasion that calls for it. It pays off in two dimensions. It will keep competent people with you and it rewards committed people for their dedication.

Ok, that’s enough for today. I will discuss the next three motivators for Baby Boomers on Monday. See you then.

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