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The Federal Coach: Are Generation Stereotypes Real?

The Federal Coach: Are Generation Stereotypes Real?

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Tom Fox | Partnership for Public Service

If I refer to the Jersey Shore, does your first thought go to a vacation spot or to someone named “Snooki?”

Your answer may say a lot about your generation. Traditionalists or Baby Boomers are thinking of summertime memories, while Millennials are thinking about Snooki and her friends on the MTV reality show. Right?

Maybe. The truth is your answer probably says more about your television viewing habits than your generation.

There may be real differences among the four generations in the workforce today, but my recent conversations with government leaders — and yes, there are Millennial leaders — tell me the conventional wisdom may not always be accurate.

It’s tempting to use generational models to simplify your teammates and subordinates, but the result might be mismanagement. Some differences are real and others are imagined. How can a leader tell the difference?

Assume nothing: If you’re a leader, be alert to real generational differences but spend time getting to know each member of your team. If your new social media folks are Millennials, but the Traditionalists are making funding decisions, a clash of generations may be in the offing. You’ll never really know, however, until you talk with individuals’ about their experience. When did they feel the greatest pride in their work? What is their biggest frustration? Knowing what the real issues are will help you make the right management choice.

Ask questions: Regardless of whether the generational differences are real or imagined, you’ll need to use a variety of methods to motivate each employee. Generally speaking, Traditionalists may be motivated when you entrust them to “complete their duty” while Millennials may be looking for coaching and mentoring — but on an individual level, you won’t know who needs what until you ask.

Screen for the talent of today, not yesterday: When it comes time to look for new talent, most leaders look for the traits that already exist. Thirty years ago government managers set out to find people willing to stay for 30 years. That was the norm. Today, though, you’re looking at a different population. People are looking to move around throughout their careers, and leaders need to make sure they are changing with the times.

What’s your experience with generational differences at the office? As a leader, do find these “Traditionalist/Millenial” generalizations helpful or harmful? As an individual, are you tired of being lumped into a generational stereotype that doesn’t ring true for you? I’d like to hear from you, either in the comments section below or via email at

Please check back on Wednesday, when I interview Charlene Frizzera who served as the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services from January 2009 until April 2010 or receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @thefedcoach.

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