Why Generational Stereotypes Can Kill Your Business

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - 15:09

By Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM

If stereotypical behaviour towards the different generations was a virus, we’d be in the middle of a pandemic.

Unfortunately, while the attraction of generation stereotypes is to reduce the complexity of human interactions to more simple terms, this is causing a range of problems in business, as AIM’s recent research on the management reality of generational thinking has shown.

Much like making business decisions based on star signs in the daily newspaper, the profile of ‘generational behaviours’ is contributing to biased and unhelpful responses to issues that have no place at work or in society more broadly.

Effects on relationships, communication and culture

When it comes to attitudes towards people of different generations, there’s a pervasive tendency to see unique qualities about one’s own group while viewing the behaviour of others through the lens of ‘there’s something wrong with them’ – this can obviously have a negative effect on work relationships, communication and organisational culture.

It has been said that ignorance is a blissful condition. It removes the need to think, to consider viewpoints that are counter to those usually held with absolute conviction. Whether this is intentional or has evolved through group-think, this cognitive condition establishes a framework that is stultifying for both the proponent and the organisation in which they work.

Interactions with people outside the group become challenging and uncomfortable, and typically result in pronouncements that don’t invite response.

As one participant in the AIM research commented – “younger people have developed a very discerning critical lens of the world…therefore we do not accept something as right simply because someone told us. Critical thinking is our default position.”

Effects on productivity and career aspirations

Management agility is an outcome of mental agility or openness to alternative perspectives that draws on a repertoire of management responses appropriate to a situation. Evidence of this is a reflection of good leadership practices that set the trajectory and ceiling on careers.

In this context, unwittingly falling into the trap of stereotype thinking can be career limiting.

Negative perceptions of people of a different age group have been traced back to the time of Socrates. But this doesn’t make stereotype threat acceptable. The psychological threat of confirming or being reduced to a negative stereotype held about one’s own group is at the very least unhelpful in eliciting productivity from a diverse workforce.

In a work environment, stereotype threat results in reduced performance when people attempt difficult tasks in areas in which they are negatively stereotyped.

Overt discrimination is not necessary for employees to feel threat. Simply being aware that they might be evaluated on the basis of a generational profile gives rise to the threat. Unsurprisingly, this frequently leads people to disengage, feel dejected and lower their career aspirations.

The antidote

The antidote to this self-fulfilling prophecy is being alert to the interplay of conscious and subconscious attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that may perpetuate stereotype threat in the workforce.

If we are collectively committed to a workplace culture where people can deliver their personal best, every day, then being mindful of stereotypes is a necessary precondition. Performance is an outcome measure of creating an environment where people can thrive.

Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM is National Director, Research and Thought Leadership at the Australian Institute of Management. Malcolm’s contribution to enhanced management practices has been recognised through coverage in publications ranging from BRW, Asset, InFinance and Money Management to the Australian Financial Review and The Australian.

If you’d like to learn more about generational stereotypes, you can explore the topic further in AIM’s discussion paper – Beyond Belief: The Management Reality of Generational Thinking. Alternatively, you may be interested in attending AIM30 Live on Wednesday 30 April – a series of simultaneous forums being held in SydneyBrisbaneMelbourne and Adelaide to reveal and discuss the indisputable findings of this paper.