Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Integrated Generations at the Workplace


Recording artist Stuart Davis sang about evolution this way: ‘I’ve got brains like antique floors. I built each one on the one before. I use all three, but they don’t agree.”

This sounds to me like a contemporary organization.

Much has been made in recent years about the impact of having multiple generations in the workplace. Bridging the different values between Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials has become a top priority among managers who fear fault lines are threatening productivity and undermining growth. Most of the literature recommends we harmonize strengths and mitigate weaknesses and create an environment of understanding.

This sounds good, but there might be another way to look at this.

Former Al Gore speech writer Dan Pink in his new book Drive outlines three motivations that science shows compel most people: mastery, autonomy and purpose. The research identifies these internal motivators as having more impact than external ones, although it’s external rewards our incentive schemes and strategic plans still tend to privilege.

It’s my belief that each generation birthed, nurtured and developed one of these motivations, and that the most integrated employees today are wired to respond to all three. Here’s a quick outline of each motivation and how they were developed:

First is mastery. The Boomers ‘live to work’ mentality compelled a focus on constant improvement. Mastery as an internal motivator is the urge to get better and better at something that matters.

Second is autonomy. The Gen Xers ‘work to live’ orientation severed the parental chord organizations had to their employees. Instead, Gen Xers emphasized the need to direct their own lives which opened the door to more individuated competition and innovation.

The third is purpose. Millennials were the first generation raised with global sensibilities and see work and life as aligned and inseparable. Pink defines purpose as the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. Having seen that our many threats are global in scope, Millennials have developed an intrinsic sense of service to the whole and see their personal contribution as vital to a better future.

It’s important to note that these motivations have evolved in relation to changing conditions. Autonomy was not tolerated in the 50s and 60s when conformity ruled organizational life. Increased competition and the subsequent need for innovation in the 80s and 90s made autonomy both valuable and essential.

And times keep changing.

Increased connectivity, global threats such as pandemics and climate change, and the emergence of multi-polar economic powers continue to alter the economic landscape. In response, organizations need people who are finely tuned to new risks and emerging opportunities and are internally driven to serve the organization’s needs in the marketplace. Employees that have integrated the internal motivations of mastery, autonomy and purpose and are given freedom to exercise their judgement will constitute future successful organizations.

To support this shift organizations need new structures that can support these employees. Finding fully integrated people is hard but the really hard work is designing structures that support and develop these internal motivations. Our current organizational structures are designed to contain and direct. New structures may look familiar but will function differently when they are animated by internally motivated people operating in an information age.

This blog post is a cross-post of my bi-weekly column featured in the Vancouver Sun. Juma Wood is a manager with Meyers Norris Penny's organization and people consulting group based in Vancouver.