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Navigating Generational Shifts: A Guide to Conscious Leadership in a Changing World

By Irina Barinskaya

For almost 10 years I have been leading teams across different countries, sectors (retail, fintech, ride-hailing, charity, and IT), and formats (from big corporations to startups and projects). I have made a lot of mistakes, but I used this fact as a learning opportunity to create a foundation for a conscious approach to leadership. Now I want to share my observations and experiences based on the generational theory and mentoring practices.

Recently, we’ve had a talk with someone from the education sector. They have, absolutely sincerely, told us that they would never hire someone who is 40+ years old. Such abhorrent displays of ageism are, alas, not that infrequent on the labor market. And the reasoning is simple – at such a venerable age, a person would most likely already have some manager experience, meaning that they were more inclined to do things their own way and refuse to listen to others. Old-school managers rarely care about the sensitive side of the new generation of employees. This makes them more likely to burn out and quit, as the fear of losing employment is not something that is a part of their self-care lifestyle.

And to realize this, you only have to scroll TikTok for a couple of days, just for the fun of it. For example, the current “lazy girl job”   trend is just one example that illustrates the fundamental difference in attitudes towards work between generations. But it would be wrong to assume that the reasons are laziness and a lack of ambition. On the contrary, these trends stem from enforcing healthy personal boundaries – something that top bloggers and thought leaders have been promoting for several years now.

New-age managers and leaders should reconsider using conventional techniques in their work, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve results by force and authority. Raising your voice or using manipulation tactics and ad hominem arguments is just unseemly. In the CIS, big IT companies and international startups have already caught up on these trends. The new generation of marketing, SMM, and PR agencies, with a focus on foreign markets and led by individuals under 35, typically instill a healthy work culture and mutual respect in the very DNA of their teams. For them, it is as natural as breathing. For companies abroad, this practice has become a standard and is often codified into law or incorporated into their code of conduct.

When I talk about this in my lectures and counseling sessions, older people (especially from the CIS countries) get up in arms. And no wonder – nobody coddled us like that and we grew up to be decent people, professionals, and productive members of society. But it will never be like it used to be. The world will continue to change, and new generations of people will grow up and take on leadership positions. They will be justified in refusing to hire those who lack empathy and psychological flexibility. I’ve put together a list of simple guidelines that you can try implementing today to adapt your thinking to the laws of the new age.

1) Embrace individuality. From appearance to self-perception and positioning. If your coworker’s name is Maria, but she introduces herself as Gerda, you should call her Gerda. If Peter joins the call in a unicorn costume, don’t make a fuss about it. For them, showcasing their individuality is one of the important indicators of happiness. If their manager accepts them for who they are, it has a direct impact on ENPS and the quality of work.

Of course, you could argue about a corporate dress code and that customers may not be happy to see a manager with black lipstick and red dreadlocks. In these cases, I do not recommend banning something outright or being critical of the way your employees express themselves. It is better to have a talk, explain the situation, and find the best solution together. Tattoos can be covered up with long sleeves, for example. However, time stops for no one, so colorful appearances raise less and less questions with each passing year.

2) Don’t act like a dad. Even if you are older and more experienced. Even if you really want to. Even if it’s for their own good. For instance, I had an employee who answered texts at all hours of the day and night and worked herself (as I imagined) to complete exhaustion, coming to work after writing her graduation thesis all night and never taking extra days off. After a couple of soul-searching conversations about work-life balance, she managed to get through to me. Turns out, she was really comfortable with such a schedule, she enjoyed the hustle and knew all there was to know about burnout. I stopped nagging her. A year later, I overheard a similar conversation between a fellow manager and their subordinate. That’s when I realized that we often project our fears and concerns onto our subordinates and, in a way, tickle our own ego, reveling in the breadth of our experience and years lived. So don’t act like a father figure, really. Tell them once and leave them alone. They’re adults, they’ll figure it out on their own. Allow them to make mistakes and learn from them.

3) But don’t get all buddy-buddy either. I made this mistake a few times. All it has done is blur the boundaries that had to be rebuilt through sweat and tears. Younger people are much easier to befriend, especially if you are in the know about modern trends, the lingo, and TikTok. Even easier if you spend your free time together and have common interests. But it’s not always clear to them where friendship ends and subordination begins. They can feel hurt and frustrated, especially if you were sending each other memes just yesterday, but today you’re demanding them to make a report and keep up with the deadlines.

A more difficult case is when you get promoted to a manager and now have to act the part instead of being that fun colleague from a neighboring department. Especially if you have a shared experience of partying and other adventures. Just yesterday you were sending each other memes about wanting to quit your jobs, but now you need to motivate them for success. It’s not easy to switch your relations from friendly to manager-subordinate in a way that doesn’t make a mess. It helps to reasonably distance yourself, talk frankly, and support your relationship in some other format. This will allow your team to gradually and organically develop an understanding of the distribution of roles.

4) Finding and fixing vulnerabilities. In my experience, establishing the pain points is not an easy task, even if you ask directly. One subordinate of mine was clearly burning out for reasons unknown. But when I prodded, she would simply reply that everything was fine and that she was just tired. At one point, I compiled a couple of videos about burnout and work-life balance, asking her to watch them before our next one-on-one and share her opinion. She came to the meeting in complete shock – only after watching the videos did she realize what exactly was she doing wrong and the cause of her burnout. We had a talk and developed a new approach. Now she comes to meetings in a completely different mood, while the freed-up energy is being channeled into new projects.

Sometimes they don’t know for themselves what’s wrong. That’s where you have to play detective and figure it out. It’s even more difficult when something is wrong in the interpersonal relationships between your subordinates. You will need a whole strategy to help them work things out among themselves.

5) Give praise and regular feedback. I believe that praise and feedback are crucial for employees of all ages, but younger generations tend to be more sensitive to the absence of it. Therefore, it’s essential to recognize and acknowledge their progress and provide positive reinforcement to keep them going. The golden rule of any one-on-one meeting: listen first, demonstrate understanding and engagement, address any issues or areas for improvement if any, and highlight the positive aspects while outlining a clear direction for growth. This way, you can alleviate more than half of the stress associated with the situation and strengthen the relationship between both parties

Another important but often forgotten point is to give thanks. For even the smallest things: a file sent, a report made, a piece of work done – it is not that difficult to write or say a few words of gratitude. For more significant achievements, such as a great display of initiative or outstanding results, it’s worth publicly thanking your employees, for example, via a team chat on Slack. It’s easy to do but invaluable, especially for those susceptible to the imposter syndrome.

6) Show attention. Members of our team naturally show more attention to each other than average. If you’re connected on Instagram, make an effort to like and comment on your subordinates’ posts, especially when they highlight personal achievements and successes Our team members are scattered around the world, but we still would send each other small gifts and souvenirs through traveling colleagues or record small videos on Telegram Every one-on-one meeting always had some time dedicated to just chatting about personal life, hobbies, and pastimes. They will care if you care. I once overheard a conversation between some older colleagues who were upset that their team member was asking about their personal lives and commenting on their Facebook photos. They felt it was an unnecessary invasion into their personal lives. On the other hand, I noticed that younger team members seemed to appreciate when I showed interest in their hobbies or pets.

This may not necessarily be a generational difference, but rather a matter of personality and willingness to engage with others. These things are tricky and it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of psychology and personality types.

7) Give recommendations and show areas for improvement. I would often create learning exercises for our team. I regularly compiled videos on various topics that would aid in their current work tasks. For example, when we transitioned to a new reporting system that required team members to present their achievements in public meetings, I would share videos on public speaking and how to create engaging presentations Similarly, when we introduced a new data-driven approach, I put together resources that explained its significance, why it was important, and how it benefited the company. To help them get a better hang of a new field, I developed courses – that’s how we introduced community management practices to our social media user support staff.

It’s effective to provide individualized recommendations based on each team member’s interests and aspirations. If they are interested in a new position, I might recommend a book on developing soft skills. If someone is working with an international team, I would provide material on intercultural communication Whether or not they choose to read it is up to them, but as a leader, it’s important to me to provide them with all the resources that can help them on their journey Additionally, I would directly ask team members what they feel they lack in order to develop and make a selection of books and materials on the topic.

8) Show them you are on their side. When I share my practices, I often get told that I’m wasting my time coddling my employees. “It’s not like you’re their mom.” Well, duh… But being an older coworker in a leadership position is, at least in part, like acting as an adult. It’s very important to strike a balance: not to overplay the parental function but also not to leave your subordinates alone to deal with external factors. If the person is wrong or mistaken, it is the manager’s job to put out the fires and outline a further plan of action, while providing personal feedback and working out the issues in one-on-one meetings.

I will say the obvious thing – it is THE worst to see a manager trash their subordinate or ego-trip in the presence of other colleagues. This paints the manager as someone who can’t get their own house in order and points to an unhealthy work environment atmosphere. So, no matter how bad the situation, what’s happened, happened. The best thing to do at that moment is to decide how to patch things up and host an error analysis session behind closed doors.

9) Give them a safe space to talk. In one of my positions, I joined a team that previously had an unforgiving leader who used draconian methods. It took me a year to get them used to the fact that they could ask questions, give their opinions, bring up their ideas, and have no fear of being wrong. We have worked all this year to build a sense of security for the team in their interactions with their manager, and it has produced amazing results. The guys started doing cool big projects that were later scaled up to the whole company. They started getting raises because they stopped being afraid to say they wanted it. We got invaluable feedback on what wasn’t working in the old processes and how to improve it. This simply cannot be gauged by surveys and anonymous questionnaires, because often they don’t have that level of credibility, and employees prefer to keep silent so things don’t go sideways for them.

Only by building these kinds of relationships between the manager and each stakeholder can you establish an atmosphere of atmosphere. Additionally, there may be instances where it’s necessary to facilitate communication between employees themselves. This can be done by bringing them together through common projects where they must collaborate to solve tasks, overcoming shared obstacles in different groups, and providing formal and informal opportunities for everyone to present, speak up, and share their thoughts without fear of judgment. This builds a sustainable culture in the team that will start to pay off only after a while. But the results will be all-encompassing, so it makes sense to invest into the future.
10) Lead by an example. There are a million articles written about this already, but I’ll repeat the simple obvious thing – people of the new generation are more perceptive and empathetic. They keenly sense falsehood, lies, insincere behavior, and ulterior motives. This way, they become the best motivation for you, a leader, to be a better version of yourself. The way you conduct yourself in meetings, private conversations, and even on social media is just as important and impactful as your professional skills and experience That’s why the concept of being a leader rather than just a manager is being heavily promoted these days. A leader is someone who breathes life into a team and sets an example for them.

It’s crucial that your words are not at odds with your deeds, that you are consistent and able to provide resources, and that the motivation system is clear and transparent. You can find this in any book on leadership, but make sure to take into account who you’re working with. Leading a team of older people is not the same as leading with younger people You can, of course, be a generalist, but switching between the two is on a whole other level. And don’t forget –  a true leader does not seek power 😉

My direct manager and I have had many discussions about the role of a team leader, what they should do, and what should be avoided. The things outlined above may not be explicitly stated in a job description and may seem more abstract than establishing work processes and external communications. I partially agree with this perspective. In my view, successful teams should ideally have both a direct supervisor (or manager) and a dedicated mentor/coach/HR/PnC (with relevant hard skills and experience in the field). The primary focus for them would be to foster a healthy environment, facilitate personal and professional development, and improve internal communication

I have a theory that as the new generation of leaders begins to dominate the workforce, they will implement similar structures in their teams. After all, they will still need the expertise and experience of the older generation but without the toxic aspects of old-school workplace dynamics. Since this new generation is already more conscious in this regard, I believe that the involvement of specialists in regulating intergenerational interactions will become increasingly common, much akin to working with a psychotherapist to improve parent-child relationships.

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