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Coaching Generation X
by: Terri Nagle
It has been said that Generation X is the most ignored, misunderstood, and disheartened generation our country has seen in a long time. No one can define who belongs to Generation X. While most agree that there is a generation after the Boomers, no one agrees on who it is. In a September 23, 1996, article in USA Today, six experts defined Generation X, each with a different answer. They ranged anywhere from those born between 1961 to 1981 (78 to 85 million) to those born between 1965 to 1976 (46 million). Although Generation X appears to be the accepted term, other labels have been applied. William Strauss and Neil Howe refer to them as the Thirteenth Generation (the thirteenth generation since the founding of our country). Baby Busters and Twenty-somethings have also been used.
One of the most fundamental requirements for effective coaching is the ability to understand others' motives, values, and goals, not enforcing one's own on others. A slight variation of the Golden Rule-instead of "treating others as you want to be treated," coaches should "treat others as they want to be treated." This means understanding, and accepting, that people are all different. It also means that there is no "script" for coaching-it is different for every person you coach.
The need to understand differences is especially apparent in the ongoing conflict between Baby Boomers and Generation X. These struggles are rooted in the desire (on both sides) to want everyone to be alike. This would certainly make our lives and relationships easier, but it is not based in reality. Of course, clashes between generations are not new. Remember the generation gap in the 1960s between the Boomers and the Silent Generation?
The fact remains that Generation X are the employees in the workforce today; they are the future. They aren't going away, nor are they likely to conform to the previous generation's definition of work. Boomer managers cannot continue to ignore Xers' differences and try to manage them according to their own mindset. This does not mean agreement with an Xer's attitude but, understanding them to make coaching easier. The better you know them, the more likely you are to have insight to their "hot buttons"-what motivates them. And, at the very best, understanding them may begin to remove the conflict and hostility that exists between the generations and will lead to positive actions and results that are mutually beneficial to the individual and the organization.
The problem with generalizations is that they only go so far and stereotyping runs the risk of alienation. There are always exceptions to the rule, those who will say "that's not me". I can sometimes identify with Boomers and sometimes with Xers (you guess my age!). It is impossible to suggest a prototype for how to coach 46-85 million people. As a start, the generalizations made here are based on a review of the relevant literature and personal observations/discussion with coaches-all with the hope of understanding this generation and offering suggestions on how to effectively coach them. To successfully coach and help Generation X, we must learn what they want, how they feel, and how they view their world.
Generation X won't do things because they have a deep sense of mission, or loyalty to an organization. They have nothing but disdain for corporate politics and bureaucracy and don't trust any institution. They grew up watching their parents turn into workaholics, only to be downsized and restructured out of their chosen careers. They believe work is a thing you do to have a life (work doesn't define their life).
During the practice situations in our coaching workshops, the coach will often say-"Your behavior is affecting the company and if you don't change, we won't be in business in the long term." They raise the company flag and pull out the loyalty line. This means nothing to Xers-it will not capture their interest, raise their awareness, or stir them to new thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Xers have no expectation of job security, so they tend to see every job as temporary and every company as a stepping stone to something better, or at least to something else. They have been accused of not wanting to pay their dues. But, in today's changing workplace, anyone who is thinking about doing a job long enough to pay dues is out of touch!
Because they won't put in long hours at what they mostly term "dead end" jobs (Douglas Coupland coined the term "Mcjobs,") and they don't exhibit the same loyalty as Boomers do towards an organization, they have been called slackers. However, Xers will work very hard for a job that they believe in, for something that challenges them. In a l995 survey, Babson College Professor Paul Reynolds found that "10% of Americans between the ages of 25-34 are actively involved in creating a start-up company, a rate about three times as high as any other age should help dispel once and for all the myth that today's youth are motivationally challenged." (U.S. News and World Report, September 23, 1996)
Value The Individual and Nurture Relationships
Although there doesn't seem to be one description of Generation X, most will agree that a defining characteristic is that they don't like to be characterized (as I'm doing in this article!). They don't want to be treated as a single entity, but want to be looked at as individuals. In addition, this is the first wave of latchkey kids to hit the work force. They are homesick for the home they never had (due to both parents working). Their focus on relationships over achievement is what leads Boomers to complain about their laziness. Isn't this strong sense of community and personal relationships in the workplace just what we need?
Challenging Work
This generation has sometimes been called the MTV Generation because of their short attention span. Xers want new challenges and the opportunity to build new skills. Training is one of the best motivators. They have a tremendous capacity to process lots of information and concentrate on multiple tasks.
They don't want to spend a lot of time talking about things or having meetings. They want to get in, do the work, and move on to the next thing. If you're looking for someone to deliver a report every week, you don't want an Xer. I recently brought up the subject of understanding twenty-somethings during a coaching workshop. Immediately a manager complained, with a lot of emotion, that kids today don't want to work and will only stay for a week or so and then leave. Well, the job was very repetitive and offered little challenge. No wonder!
Freedom to Manage Time and Work
Xers don't want over-your-shoulder, in-your-face managers who constantly check what they're doing. Perhaps as a result of their latchkey childhood, these young workers are not used to being closely supervised and are remarkably good at working on their own.
Feedback and Recognition
On the other hand, members of Generation X seem to crave time with their bosses and can never get enough feedback on their performance. They may be searching for what was missing when they were growing up. Because of their short attention span, recognition and rewards must arrive quickly. Employee of the month doesn't do anything for them.
The characteristics for which Generation X has received such bad press are the very qualities that make them valuable. We say we want an empowered work force...give Xers the ball and they will run with it...we want a self-directed work force...these workers have been self directed from a very young age...we want computer literacy...Generation X comes out on top...we want flexible, adaptable workers-right on again.
Xers will respond to Boomer managers if they put meaning, into the buzzwords they use so often-empowerment, teamwork, communication. Create an environment where they are challenged by and enjoy their work, where they're measured on performance rather than on which clothes they wear, where they are informed, included and recognized. Gee, maybe Xers aren't so different from anyone else!

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