Aging Management

A colleague in Malaysia, a nation where 65% of the population is under 35, asked for my thoughts on how to deal with an “aging management” population and such a wide generation gap. The US Nuclear Industry faces a similar crises, with a key difference that they have difficulty recruiting young people into what is considered a dying industry. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a 2004 study suggested focusing on the following to prepare the next generation of leaders:

Retention – This is a challenge for Malaysia and the US Nuclear Industry alike. Both have a history of primarily autocratic leadership, yet the primary variable in study after study on retention is the relationship between the boss and their direct reports. If the subordinate doesn’t believe they are respected by their immediate supervisor, they are much more likely to leave, even at risk of a loss of income. If they feel respected by their boss, they are much more likely to be loyal.

This need for a mutually respectful relationship in an autocratic top down environment is a paradox that must be solved not only for retention, but for performance, knowledge transfer, succession coaching and planning, morale, and the like. As Kurt Lewin demonstrated in his famous studies of group leadership, it is far easier to be autocratic or, as he put it, laissez-faire (passive or hands off leadership), yet less effective, than it is to be democratic (be in charge yet allow appropriate autonomy and influence). According to Lewin whereas anyone can be authoritarian or passive, every generation has to learn how to do democracy. In his own words, “Autocracy is imposed upon the individual.  Democracy he has to learn.”

Developing Emotionally Intelligent (EQ) leaders who understand how to tune into their subordinates while still fulfilling their role of being in charge is critical for both the US Nuclear Industry and Malaysia. This is an investment that pays off whether or not the individual remains an individual contributor or moves into higher levels of positional authority (although the odds that they will “move up” increases significantly if they improve their EQ). As Daniel Goleman notes in one of numerous studies on the subject: “EQ accounted for 67% of the abilities deemed necessary for superior performance,” and “EQ mattered TWICE as much as technical expertise or IQ.” Emotionally Intelligent Leadership is critical to performance, yet is generally treated as a training option rather than as a strategic necessity.

This is partially because you can’t learn EQ through a passive classroom learning process, and so much EQ training is bunk. Genuine experiential training where one learns from their immediate real interactions and reactions, and then learns how to learn continuously from such key moments, is  rare.

Knowledge Transfer and Succession Planning were the other two strategies recommended by the IAEA. The US Nuclear Industry is strong in taking such recommendations and turning them into organized and highly bureaucratic processes, where specific types of knowledge, for example, are documented, and training, often involving current subject matter experts internal and external to the organization, is provided. This addresses one aspect (admittedly important) of knowledge transfer. Equally important…yes, this is a theme…is daily ongoing relationship management throughout the organization. The quality of informal knowledge transfer, and of the depth of the dialogue in formal knowledge transfer scenarios, depends on it. The difference upon quality of learning between tolerating “the expert” and engaging with them in active exploration of the topic is huge.

The same is even more true of succession planning, a highly emotional process (even in nuclear plants run by engineers). Organizing a succession planning process is not so tough and there are several ways to skin that cat. Generally the lead team, and the subsequent layers assess talent one and/or two layers down in the organization and have debate over who might step up into future leadership positions, and where there is a significant gap in skill, training, experience, etc. (if they are really advanced they weigh in EQ). This then guides coaching/mentorship, training, development, recruitment, etc. However, most organizations, even if they get this organized (which is wise!), are weak in the very skills necessary for objective assessment of individuals (which is difficult!) and coaching. Then essential skills include how to recognize one’s own subjectivity in one’s judgements of others (so one can be more objective and even influenced in their opinions rather than getting their ego attached to their opinions), and how to recognize and describe behaviors (such as “missed several deadlines without notifying me in advance”) rather than tearing people down with labels (such as “not a team player”). Behavior description is not only critical to performance and talent assessment, but it is also essential in effective coaching.

Perhaps even more valuable, a high EQ leader that can effectively focus on behavior, can then ask themselves, and their subordinate, “ok, you missed several deadlines, which isn’t good, and you didn’t inform me up front…is their something about my own behavior/reactions that makes you reluctant to bring me bad news? Is there something about the nature of the task or the way we set deadlines (passive acceptance of top down deadlines, for example) that makes it unlikely they will be achieved?” An EQ leader asks such questions not to relieve the subordinate of responsibility, but to make sure they aren’t missing other root causes, including their own behavior, and to seize opportunities for their own continuous learning.

That covers the IAEA recommendations. The other variable here is the generation gap. As I wrote in an earlier entry (“Managing the Wired Generation”), each generation in our electronic age tends to have an increasing degree of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder behaviors. They have been brought up with so much competing stimulus that slow tedious processes are likely to drive them crazy. On top of that, is low tolerance for leaders that even appear to be authoritarian. And I mean “appear,” because many leaders who intend to be inclusive and mutually respectful need only make one “wrong move” in the eyes of wary subordinates to lose trust. This is why subordinates as well as leaders need to understand their emotional reactions to authority, and “learn democracy anew.”

It’s a two-way street. The elders of every generation are likely to lament that the next generation doesn’t have the values, work ethic, etc. that they had “at their age,” and the next generation is likely to view the current elders as judgemental and stuck in their ways. It is the elders who are best positioned to have some wisdom about this age old gap between the generations, and lead the way out. “Aging Managers” must focus on connecting, not blaming. They must figure out how to listen and meet as best as possible “Generation Y’s” yearning for action, innovation, respect, etc. Create processes for innovation and dialogue or you will stifle the young in any culture. The younger generation can also be taught democracy anew, and learn how to work with and learn as much as possible from their elders. Believe it or not, they actually have a deep yearning for elders they respect. It’s just rare for the young to have the emotional maturity and intellectual perspective to realize that they are creating their own drama if they tend towards blame and negative judgements of their leadership. Much, for both generations, is in the eye of the beholder, and this can be taught.

Mutual alienation or mutual respect. The choice is actually yours.

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
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2 Responses to Aging Management

  1. Drew Hampshire says:

    Well written Gil. I see so many parallels to the industry I’m in-auto dealer Service department. I’m the child of an older father, so while I should be more Generation X than I am, I reflect more Boomer tendencies, which puts me in strange relationships. I don’t naturally identify with Gen X tendencies but most expect that from me. The Boomer Gen think I’m too young to trust, yet they see the work ethic that pleases them. I operate as a manager, and attempt democracy yet feel all the autocratic desires of a Boomer. Each day is an adventure.

    • gilcrosby says:

      Thanks for the comment Drew. Authority issues, even without the added complication of generational tensions, exist in every organization. The trick is to figure out how to be in charge without over-managing. It leader has to figure out what decisions/authority they are going to retain and what freedoms to act they are going support. The clearer one is with oneself, the clearer one can be with one’s subordinates. Communicating how one intends to lead and being open to influence during that communication is wise. If your subordinates want more autonomy than you envisioned giving, then let them tell you what fredom they want, how they are going to keep you informed of how it is working, and how they want to handle it if it is not working. Then be honest about whether you can live with the request. Stretch yourself though…just because you are anxious about the amount of autonomy you are allowing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t allow it. Delegation of authority is an art, not a science.

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