Challenges for Leadership when Managing GenMe

By reframing the leadership models presented, propositions for managers can be advanced to enable better leadership of people with GenMe attitudes.

In this article, which continues from the piece Leading GenMe, I outline a series of challenges for managers and their leadership styles who are faced with a workforce composed predominantly of a GenMe mindset. To accomplish this, I will be tackling five categories of leadership theory:

  1. Transformational Leadership
  2. Information Processing
  3. Leader-Member Exchange (LMX)
  4. Authentic Leadership
  5. Ethical Leadership

Transformational Leadership

Transformational Leadership is the process by which a manager seeks to help a team see beyond their immediate self-interest. It attempts to do this by creating a vision, which is used to achieve change through what are known as the ‘Four I’s’:

  1. Inspirational Motivation
  2. Idealized Influence
  3. Intellectual Stimulation
  4. Individualized Consideration

While Transformational Leadership is often considered highly effectual, it can be challenged by teams of a GenMe mindset. This is because one of the standout propositions about GenMe is that they are higher in individualism than GenWe. On the surface, this would seem to create opportunities in management that transformational leadership is primed to solve. Yet dig a little deeper and we find several faults.

First, due to the greater individualism of GenMe, employees tend to focus on achieving their own goals, with the needs of the organisation being a by-product of their efforts. This creates a challenge for leaders because, contrary to the Steven Covey approach, a ‘win-win’ is not always possible in the workplace. A highly topical example is employees demanding a 7% or greater pay increase in an operating environment which prompts organisations to think it more fiscally prudent to offer 4% or less. Because transformational leadership starts with the premise that leaders can create a vision of the future to which employees will subscribe, if the vision is sufficiently motivating, it is assumed the only challenge is to find the ‘win-win’. However, among those of a GenMe mindset work is less central to their lives and therefore appeals by transformational leaders are going to be less influential. The upshot is that managers who adopt a transformational approach will often be met with disinterest, cynicism, and apathy.

Second, given the greater emphasis on extrinsic rewards by GenMe, leaders will get less traction with emotional or intrinsic appeals because employees will gravitate toward outcomes that provide the highest personal utility or benefit. Although over a decade old, the data from an extensive survey by Ng et al. in 2010, New Generation, Great Expectations: A Field Study of the Millennial Generation, showed that in a ‘national survey of millennial undergraduate university students from across Canada (N = 23,413)’:

Millennials also appear to have high expectations when it comes to promotions and pay raises. They have been reported to wonder why they were not getting pay raises and promotions after six months on the job. For example, a recent university graduate working at an investment bank in downtown Toronto reported that he will learn as much as he can and then move on for something bigger and better, because he couldn’t wait two years to get promoted.

Eddy Ng et al, New Generation, Great Expectations

While this study focussed on Millennials and confines its conclusions to more traditional notions of generational divide, the results are nonetheless important for managers who encounter the same traits, but in an older cohort of employees.

With GenMe finding value in increasingly extrinsic rewards, managers who cling to a transformational approach and try to tackle the problem with inspirational leadership, or leadership which constructs an idealised ‘win-win’ scenario, will struggle to find traction with a team primarily looking for pay and promotion. For such transformational leadership approaches to be effective, the team would first need to be reformed around a different value(s) set. A process which cannot be accomplished in the short term, but which alternative leadership tools can help to simulate for long enough to achieve organisational goals. We will come to these tools in a moment.

Information Processing

Paid up members of the information processing approach to leadership are subscribing to the view that leadership exists in a social context and is enabled by followers as a result of their perception. Work in the information processing field builds on the earlier attribution theory work in Fritz Heider’s 1958 book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, and is important because it goes to the heart of the causal elements of success and failure in the management process. Simply put:

Attribution theory is a theory about how people make causal explanations, about how they answer questions beginning with “why?” It deals with the information they use in making causal inferences, and with what they do with this information to answer causal questions.

Harold Kelley, The Processes of Causal Attribution

Heider’s work has profound implications for our understanding of human interactions. For instance, do the views a manager advocates reflect their true opinions or is something else driving their actions and words? Yet the information processing framework opens the understanding of leadership to the problematic construct that leadership cannot be known or understood through the behaviours of leaders, only through the perceptions of their followers.

Problematic because if leadership is nothing more than an outcome of follower perception, then the hyper-individualism which is increasingly endemic in workplaces erodes the capacity for leadership. The reasoning for this assertion is that in a context where words are infinitely malleable and in which actions do not have any meaning other than what the individual perceives them to mean, it becomes nearly impossible for any one person to reconcile the myriad competing perceptions within the boundaries of their practice of management.

The drawbacks to the information processing model of leadership double down once we apprehend that increasing diversity, not just in employees but in workplace settings with most office employees experiencing a high level of work location autonomy post Covid, means that creating a cohesive work environment imbued with shared meaning is challenging to the point of impossible.

Thankfully for most managers, leadership is much more than merely the perception of it. Examples of this abound with targets of the ‘Not My’ movements — e.g., ‘Not My President’, ‘Not My Prime Minister’, ‘Not My King’ — still exerting leadership and power in the societies they govern. Excoriated and ‘Not My President’ for millions of Americans, Trump nonetheless retained all the legal authority of the office of President, allowing him to exert leadership in the Oval Office.

There is also the symbiotic relationship played by the emphasis that GenMe places on extrinsic rewards. In that by seeking and self-selecting roles that provide the tangible rewards they seek; employees confer the perception of leadership on managers who have power over pay and promotion. Meaning that a manager can fail at management and devoid of leadership qualities yet be perceived as delivering both, so long as the employee rewards are commensurate with staff expectations. An arguably dangerous state of affairs as far from being follower centric, choice and perception is eroded with control going to the highest bidder.

Leader-Member Exchange (LMX)

Leader-member exchange is a theory of leadership which revolves around the dyadic, one-on-one relationship between a leader and follower. It is a relationship based on social exchange or what Alvin Gouldner termed the ‘norm of reciprocity’. It is a concept which is very ancient, as Cicero writing in the first century attests: ‘There is no duty more indispensable than that of returning a kindness’.

One of the key challenges, as anyone who has experienced an in-group / out-group situation (usually termed high quality and low quality relationships in the academic literature), is that the process of rewarding people for their willingness to go above and beyond can be a double edged sword. Creating enhanced levels of trust in those rewarded and irritating, or even eroding the trust, of everybody else. Given that managers generally have an extremely limited pool of discretionary resources from which to draw, the outcomes of the leader-member exchange can be fraught with difficulties. But first, the benefits.

Employees who benefit from being part of the in-group (having a high quality relationship with their manager) enjoy:

  • Better and more consistent performance feedback.
  • Often are the recipients of better pay and promotion opportunities.
  • Enjoy a pseudo-management role as their boss will often include them in the decision making process, enabling them to impact resource allocations.

Organisations which can get and keep employees in this in-group sweet spot, accrue:

  • Benefits as people are less likely to leave.
  • Report more favourably regarding the perceived toxicity of office politics.
  • Report better job satisfaction.
  • Enjoy more robust corporate citizenship behaviour.
  • Tend to have higher performing employees.

The negatives are that leader-member exchange is fundamentally eroded by the hyper-individualism of GenMe. This is because GenMe employees tend to be less interested in building social relationships with their colleagues, despite having higher expectations regarding attention and praise from peers and managers. In turn, managers who anticipate a degree of reciprocity from team members (e.g., I look the other way when you are late for work so I do not expect complaints when you have to work overtime) can struggle to build affinity with employees who seem unwilling to ‘pay benefits forward’ and instead have an entitled attitude to organisation benefits. This creates a negative synergy in which:

  • Low quality (out-group) relationships become more of a norm.
  • Managers have an ever lower bar regarding employee trust.
  • Employees in turn trust organisations and manager less — resulting in higher turnover.

The only process which benefits is that of affiliation and networking, as people busy themselves looking for ways to leverage relationships and focus on people pleasing over job performance.

Authentic Leadership

Despite having roots that are millennia old, authentic leadership continues to be treated with a presentist mindset — which is to conceive of it as a new approach to leadership. As though being true to oneself is a twenty-first century invention.

What is new is the way in which academics and practitioners alike see authentic leadership as repudiation of the advice that managers should amend their behaviour to adapt to business or social trends or as some cri de coeur against unethical or amoral behaviour.

While this can be true, it is not necessarily an end of authentic leadership. Rather, a by-product if the leader’s behaviour is simpatico with the prevailing Zeitgeist. Thus, we are on safer ground to assert that authentic leadership represents behavioural congruence, which results from leaders who are self-aware and act in ways that are consistence with their beliefs. An approach which is:

positively and strongly related to a variety of key business performance outcomes, including productivity, customer satisfaction, profit, accidents, and employee turnover.

Bruce Avolio et al, Unlocking the Mask

For those with an aversion to trait based leadership, authentic leadership does not fall into this category, based as it is on the experiences which shapes a leader’s beliefs — beliefs from which their authenticity emerges. Thus, unlike traits, which summon notions of genetic differences, authentic leadership is an evolving and sustaining approach in which a leader engages in continuous self-assessment to determine which events and outcomes had the most impact. Also, how their reactions to those events and outcomes have continue to shape their beliefs. This casts authentic leadership as a quest, in which the journey may not be clearly known, but the end involves taking roles and making choices that allow managers to behave in ways consistent with their beliefs.

Because of the strong emphasis that authentic leaders place on their beliefs and being true to oneself, there is an interesting paradox that emerges when leading people of a GenMe mindset. No matter the approach to leadership that is adopted, leadership only exists if one key element is present — that the leader takes people on a journey. Yet with GenMe embracing hyper-individualism, there can often be little to no interest in following a leader on a journey, no matter how authentic and trusted, if it means conformance to values that are not already held. The paradox being that the more a leader unlocks authentic beliefs in followers, trust is weakened as employees move away from the organisational values with which a leader is seeking alignment.

An example of this is if a leader sees work as central to their life and views coming early and staying late as necessary to achieve the organisational goals. If this does not align with the values of a GenMe employee who places a greater emphasis on leisure, their preference of individualism over group cohesion will mean they feel a disconnect with their manager and organisation. Given the higher tendency among GenMe cohorts to favour extrinsic rewards such as pay and promotion, authentic leaders often struggle when seeking to motivate using intrinsic rewards such as team or organisational benefit. A disconnect that even great authenticity may be unable to overcome.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leadership is the last and perhaps most challenging approach discussed here. Challenging because of the way in which ethics is understood in business settings and society more generally.

When correctly situated, ethics is a supra-societal system. This means that it is a value which is both eternal and which will hold true no matter the society in which it may operate. Morality, on the other hand, is a general system of values which emanates from religious or secular societies. Therefore, talk of ethical leadership begins on shaky ground because it often co-mingles the notion of leaders behaving ethically (supra-societal) to promote moral (society based) actions or behaviours in their employees. Examples of this are found in the general reaction to perceived corporate scandals.

Yet dig beneath the surface and corporate scandals fall into two broad categories — malum in se and malum prohibitum. The latter, which means something which is wrong because it is prohibited, refers in the main to things which are criminal offences. They are a clear category, like them or loath them, because they are enshrined in law and can be readily accessed. Once we move from written law into the field of malum in se the field of view becomes much murkier because we are dealing with things that are evil in themselves. The most commonly cited examples of this are murder, robbery, and rape; activities which are generally considered ‘evil’ in almost all societies even if they were to be decriminalised. Avoiding historical examples of societies which did not think this, there is a much larger circle of ‘evil’ acts which are highly correlated with an individual’s or individual society’s moral beliefs.

The importance of this distinction is that when attending conferences, board meetings, staff planning, or just chatting around the water cooler, ethics is assumed when in reality morality is at stake. Leaders engaging in reform and corporate governance are in a conundrum as what is ‘evil’ for one may be ‘sharp’ business practice for another. Fortunately for leaders, Lawrence Kohlberg formulated a six stage theory for understanding how individuals reason their moral judgements:

reason about what is right based upon obedience and fear of punishment (stage 1) or exchange in relationships (e.g., one hand washes the other) (stage 2). Individuals at the middle two stages (termed the conventional level), decide what’s right based on the expectations of significant others (stage 3) or rules or laws (stage 4). Individuals at the highest stages (termed the principled level) determine what is right by upholding internally-held values and standards regardless of majority opinion (stage 5) or by looking to universally held deontological principles of justice and rights (stage 6)… Most adults are at the conventional level, meaning that their thinking about what is right is largely influenced by significant others, rules, and laws.

Michael Brown and Linda Treviño, Ethical Leadership.

With moral decision making predominantly influenced by social norms — laws, rules, and social interactions — Ethical Leadership is more properly categorised as a theory of moral leadership, which is a broad church also encompassing authentic leadership, spiritual leadership, and servant leadership — due to the emphasis placed on ‘doing the right thing’. There are also hints of Transactional Leadership in this mix as the implementation of ‘ethical’ standards requires working to achieve compliance with them. From this brief precis of Ethical Leadership theory, three challenges emerge. One which is amplified by the hyper-individualism of GenMe.

The first is that in trying to lead ethical behaviour in an organisation, employees may not be aware that ethical or moral dilemmas are being faced. A process that is linked with moral intensity, in that some employees will see a situation or organisational choice as highly problematic while others will be aware of potentially harmful consequences but not perceive the need for action because it is either an edge case or not highly significant for the affected group in their opinion.

The second, and highly correlated to GenMe, is that hyper-individualism in employees erodes the ability to achieve consensus regarding ethical or moral norms. A process that is also closely linked to moral intensity. An example may be that GenWe employees may not see the need for an organisation to afford free access to fertility treatments or unlimited sick leave in the event of a serious health event. GenMe employees, conversely, will tend to see the lack of such provisions as a violation of human rights. Of course, the great ‘however’ is that even among employees who broadly conform to GenMe, their hyper-individualism will mean they will agree with like-minded colleagues on some topics yet disagree on others. This situates lack of consensus as the main factor in organisational behaviour decision making and further erodes the efficacy of Ethical Leadership.

Third, the de-emphasis on the centrality of work in a GenMe employee’s life can also undermine the moral intensity they feel regarding organisational behaviour. This is due to a disconnect between the work done and any sense of that work having real world consequences. A gamification of the workplace in which daily tasks are little more than pixels on a screen, which can be turned off once bored. In such a desensitised context, there can even be a heightened tendency to unethical behaviour because the GenMe attitude is predisposed to an ‘I’m owed’ mentality.

Transcending GenMe Attitudes

In next week’s article, Propositions for Managing GenMe, I will start to unpack what these propositions mean for managers and teams. As already stressed in the last article in this series, Leading GenMe, I do not have any easy answers to this problem. But, with some reframing of the leadership models presented, propositions for managers can be advanced to enable better leadership of people with GenMe attitudes. The hope is that this information can assist managers to deal with hyper-individualism, strengthen team cohesion, and develop greater employee trust in organisations.

Good night, and good luck.

Image by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash.

Further Reading

Avolio, Bruce J., William Gardner, Fred Walumbwa, Fred Luthans, and Douglas May. “Unlocking the Mask: A Look at the Process by Which Authentic Leaders Impact Follower Attitudes and Behaviors.”Leadership Quarterly 15, no. 6 (2004): 801–823.

Brown, Michael E, and Linda K Treviño. “Ethical Leadership: A Review and Future Directions.”The Leadership Quarterly 17, no. 6 (2006): 595–616.

Caspi, A. “Personality Development Across the Life Course.” In Handbook of Child Psychology, edited by W. Damon, Vol. 3 (New York: Wiley, 1998).

Dansereau, Fred, George Graen, and William J. Haga. “A Vertical Dyad Linkage Approach to Leadership Within Formal Organizations: A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role Making Process.”Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 13, no. 1 (1975): 46–78.

Dinh, Jessica, Robert Lord, William Gardner, Jeremy Meuser, Robert Liden, and Jinyu Hu. “Leadership Theory and Research in the New Millennium: Current Theoretical Trends and Changing Perspectives.”Leadership Quarterly 25, no. 1 (2014): 36.

Erickson, Tamara J. “Gen Y in the Workforce.”Harvard Business Review 87, no. 2 (2009): 43.

Gouldner, Alvin W. “The Norm of Reciprocity: A Preliminary Statement.”American Sociological Review 25, no. 2 (1960): 161–178.

Heider, Fritz. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (New York: Wiley, 1958).

Kelley, Harold H. “The Processes of Causal Attribution.”The American Psychologist 28, no. 2 (1973): 107–128.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. “State and Sequence: The Cognitive-Development Approach to Socialization.” In Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research, edited by David A. Goslin Rand McNally Sociology Series. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969).

Ng, Eddy S. W., Linda Schweitzer, and Sean T. Lyons. “New Generation, Great Expectations: A Field Study of the Millennial Generation.”Journal of Business and Psychology 25, no. 2 (2010): 281–292.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey. “The Ambiguity of Leadership.”The Academy of Management Review 2, no. 1 (1977): 104–112.

Phillips, James S., and Robert G. Lord. “Causal Attributions and Perceptions of Leadership.”Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 28, no. 2 (1981): 143–163.

Twenge, Jean M., and Tim Kasser. “Generational Changes in Materialism and Work Centrality, 1976-2007: Associations With Temporal Changes in Societal Insecurity and Materialistic Role Modeling.”Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 39, no. 7 (2013): 883–897.

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