Common sense suggests that the generations in India are fundamentally different from one another. Some differences are blatant-- such as, how people dress or their preference for a consumer-oriented life style or choices about after-work entertainment. Other differences are subtle and not as easily detected, like ideas about marriage or what one considers as appropriate personal behavior or attitude towards elders or members of the opposite sex.
But as the generational tides shift due to the retirement and replacement of older employees, will there have to be wholesome changes in how leaders must behave? I do not think so.
Let’s start by defining the generations, mainly in the context of India’s urban middle and upper socio-economic classes. Three generations emerge: the Partition generation, born 1944-1963; the Transition generation born 1964-1983; and the Post-Liberalization (Market generation) born 1984 onwards. These generations are roughly equivalent to the Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y or millennials.
Each generation was raised in unique historical and economic circumstances and so their values are different. The Partition generation aspired for steady jobs and economic stability to buffer themselves and their families against misfortune. They believe that the social customs that they grew up with, are essential for social stability. The Transition generation has experienced a greater range of choices about lifestyles, careers and consumer goods and is more open to different options. However, most want to stick to the family and societal traditions with which they grew up. The Post-Liberalization generation has been brought up in a world with exponentially expanding opportunities. They are inclined to value entrepreneurship and hard work, and regard organizational rules with some skepticism. However, they continue to appreciate their families and traditions.
But when it comes to workplace behavior, our research at the Center for Creative Leadership shows that, what employees want from their leaders, across all three generations, is far more similar than different.
So what do the generations believe about effective leadership? In India, our data indicate that all three generations want their leaders to be charismatic, team-oriented, participative, and humane. And all three generations are not convinced that a hierarchical or autonomous style of leadership is effective.
These six leadership styles were identified by the GLOBE research, which was conceived by Robert House of the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania. Study participants were asked to think about outstanding leaders who were "exceptionally skilled at motivating, influencing, or enabling you, others, or groups to contribute to the success of the organization or task" and to rate their characteristics. The leadership styles are based on statistical and conceptual analysis of data from 17,300 middle managers from 61 countries, and is one of the most comprehensive recent studies of global leadership,
Let’s delve deeper. What do the descriptions of these six styles tell us about what all three generations want from their leaders?
- Charismatic leadership is characterized by strong enthusiasm and by inspiring and motivating others
- Team-oriented leadership calls for helping teams to deal with conflict, work together, and develop cohesion
- Participative leadership features collaboration and inclusiveness
- Humane-oriented leadership is characterized by helping others, generosity and compassion Autonomous leadership features self-reliance, individualism, and working and acting independently Hierarchical leadership places importance on social rank, following tradition, and abiding by the rules.
These descriptions help us understand what all employees want from effective intergenerational leaders. They tell us that an “outstanding leader” will be regarded as outstanding by all generations, and not just one generation of employees! But how does this translate into cross-generational behaviors and workplace interactions between managers and subordinates? Here are my top tips which are time-tested and they work. They may seem obvious, but they are difficult to put into practice.
- Practice charisma. This is simply having enthusiasm for your work and for the people with whom you work. Emotions are contagious. Studies show that leaders who are perceived as positive are also perceived as being more effective.
- Help your team to connect with each other. In India, the last decade has created vast opportunities for business growth. But within a company, fierce competition for personal career advancement can turn a team into a collection of maneuvering, ambitious individuals who focus on their own agendas and jockey to claim credit. In this context, it is especially important for you as a leader to build in time in your meetings for team members to learn to support one another. Your team needs to practice tackling challenges together, reflecting on lessons learned, showing mutual appreciation and celebrating achievements.
- Be participative when possible. Make it a habit to ask your team for ideas and make sure you implement others’ ideas, not just your own. A leader who educates and empowers subordinates and invites their participation will consistently achieve superior results. Cultural traditions teach Indian subordinates to listen and follow the instructions of their bosses and superiors. Many times, well-qualified employees are treated as peons and scolded for not doing precisely what they were told. But recent insights from neuroscience tell us that by chastising employees frequently, we simply make it more difficult for their brains to absorb new learning and improve. They begin to mistrust their own judgment, lose confidence and the motivation to take initiative or responsibility for achieving team goals. They become under-performers.
- Be humane. Really think about what your subordinates and co-workers need and how you can help them to work more effectively and achieve their personal and work-related goals. In India, there are dramatic differences between the socio-economic strata of society. Sometimes, employee performance is significantly impacted by life circumstances and events. Simple actions that recognize others’ personal situation go a long way — for example, inquiring about a sick child or attending an employee’s wedding. The point is that humane leaders consciously take such personal factors into account.
In practice, what employees of all generations want to see in their leaders is consideration for others. All leaders must learn how to be more charismatic, team-oriented, participative, and humane, and less hierarchical and autonomous. This is how to meet the deep and basic needs of employees. A good way to bridge generational gaps is to live up to employee expectations and demonstrate that you want and see value in everyone’s contributions.