Leading the Fairness Generation in an Unfair World

“You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto,
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto,
Let’s call the whole thing off!”

This tongue-in-cheek song, written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1937, playfully looks at how something as small as the pronunciation of words can cause a big relational discord. So big in fact, that the two people involved are ready to quit the relationship. We chuckle at the absurdity of the premise and ask the simple question, “You’re talking about the same thing, jus pronouncing it differently. What is the big deal?” That’s fine if the two people in the conversation both know and agree on what a tomato is. But what if one of the people involved has a completely different definition of a tomato?

In my role as a Leadership and Business Coach, I have more than a few clients who are struggling with a unique challenge – how to lead the “Fairness Generation.” I define the Fairness Generation as those children (now adults) born between 1986 to 1994 and raised in a school culture of equality. Beginning in the early 1990s, competition became “bad,” soft padding was put under playground equipment, and everything was made “equal” so no child would feel badly about being different. The Fairness Doctrine was filtered into just about everything – especially sports – where scores no longer mattered, and trophies were given to everyone who participated. This doctrine has led to an entire generation of workers who expect to be told what wonderful people they are (even before they actually do anything), expect to receive $150,000 salary just for showing up to work, and expect the workplace to be fair. Fair in compensation. Fair in work expectations. Fair in benefits.

Where the leadership challenge lies is found in the very different world views one generation has from the next. In the Modern Era (roughly 1990 and prior), there was a common understanding of the world based on the scientific method (hypothesis, evidence, and conclusion), a belief in an absolute truth, and a common understanding of a work ethic. The fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper makes complete sense to the Modern Era mindset – if you don’t work, you don’t eat. In the Post-Modern Era (roughly 1990 to present), experience and feelings trump the scientific method. There is no absolute truth and the work ethic is left to individual interpretation. The fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper has no meaning to this era’s mindset. The Fairness Generation doesn’t see the productivity of the ant or his right to the bounty of his hard work. This generation hears this fable and feels the grasshopper has a right to the food the ant has stored up. The ant should share. It’s not right for the greedy ant to keep all the food for himself. It’s not fair.

Two people on the same planet but on completely different worlds.

How do you lead someone who doesn’t see the world the same way you do? How do you communicate with someone who lives in the same culture but doesn’t have the same definition and basis for a work ethic as you? This baffles Modern Era leaders who look at the Fairness Generation and say, “Go out and drum up business,” while the Fairness Generation looks back and says, “Why aren’t you giving me the ‘almost-closed’ leads?” They look at you and wonder (sometimes out loud) how unfair it is that you sit behind your desk while they have to go out and “work.” I don’t completely blame this young work force. After all, they are a product of our teaching. We let it happen. However, this new generation is at an adult age and are responsible for their decisions and attitudes.

Leading this group of workers will require some new skills of the Modern Era leader. You will be taking a role of teacher as well as leader. You will need to reeducate them to some extent. You will need to be a little more patient. You may even need to educate them on office etiquette. One CEO client of mine had difficulty with a young 20-something in her company because he didn’t realize the basic line of communication, how to find the information he needed for projects, the proper way to communicate to others in the office, and so on. Some of the relational etiquette skills he should have learned at home was not taught. So when the older leader rightly expected a certain base level of skillset for the job, the young worker was not prepared. While this may seem like an opportune time to dismiss the young employee, the current culture we are in is not like the one twenty years ago. It used to be that for everyone 100 skilled-and-ready potential employees, there may be one or two who would not be ready like the young employee in the example above. Now, the numbers are reversed. For every one or two skilled-and-ready potential employees, there are 100 who are not ready for the realities of corporate America. I believe one of the chief reasons is the shift away from a common set of shared values and absolute truth to a set of shifting values and relative truth.

One way to lead this group effectively is to learn this generation’s perspective. It’s not enough to learn the language. You have to learn how they see the world in order for your language to connect. Learn what sparks passion and drive in them. Most likely, it’s not the same things that drive you. While Modern Era leaders may be driven by achievement, money, position, etc., the Fairness Generation is driven more by significance and helping others. Tap into that. Show them ways that their current job brings help to others or adds significance – even if it is only within the organization. Demonstrate how personal responsibility ties directly into them achieving their passion. Keep in mind their perspective and world view.

It is extremely important to bring everything you say and do back to your company’s values and mission. While this generation has values, those values are not based on an absolute standard as in years past. Their standard is relative and situational. Obviously, this is a challenge when it comes to getting your team on the same page. Bringing everything back to your company’s core values gives you a starting point to laying down the ground rules and commitments that everyone on the team needs to make to achieve your goals.

It would be easy to simply skip all of this and hire only employees age 40 and up. However, the Fairness Generation is not going away and their ranks are growing globally. If we are to lead our companies, organizations, and people effectively, we need to do the hard work of learning some new skill sets. It will be an investment well worth our time.

What has been your experience? Is the Fairness Generation ready for the real world? What successes or challenges have you faced in leading this age group?



Photo by author.

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