"How many of you feel you don't understand the younger employees in your organization?"
This is a question I have never really felt the need to ask American or European executives in senior leadership seminars. I already knew the answer. But this was my first time teaching leadership at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore to a roomful of Asian executives. I was afraid that they may not perceive a generation gap in the East, so before I launched into the subject, I thought I would pose the question.
But these Asian leaders did not surprise me... with one vocal exception. Essa Al Mannai, executive director of the Qatar Foundation, eagerly opposed the almost unanimous opinion in the room: "I think I understand them very well."
Looking at Essa's 30-something face, it didn't take me long to formulate my next question, "But do you understand the people above you in the organization?" With sudden recognition of the problem, Essa said, "Oh them? Not at all!"
Perhaps every generation feels like they don’t understand the cohort before or after them. But the most significant “gap” we’ve seen in recent history was between Baby Boomers and their parents. One reason this gap was so wide was that there was a technological component: Boomers grew up watching television, their parents did not.
In our book, The Kids are Alright, Mitchell Wade and I found that a more recent technology is creating the current gap. More than age itself, the experience of growing up playing video games (the new technology for this generation) was responsible for significant differences in business attitudes and behaviors between gamers and non-gamers. The term gamer does not necessarily mean that they currently play; rather, we attached that label to someone who played video games during the most formative period for the brain’s neural pathways - up to about age 13.
For non-gamers, like myself, there are pros and cons to the thinking these gamers bring with them to the workplace. I’ve listed some of them in alternating order below:
Con - Overconfidence: We found that gamers were more likely to consider themselves “experts in their field” and believe that “if it is going to get done right, I’d better do it myself” than their generally older counterparts. In other words, they think quite highly of themselves. But, they also prefer to be paid for performance - putting their money where their mouths are.
Pro - Comfortable with uncertainty: In a video game (unlike a football game, for instance) anything can happen at any time. If you grew up with sports as your metaphor, you knew that the playing field would always remain level. If you grew up playing video games, you expected the ground itself to move at any moment. This encourages a “fighting stance” that anticipates constant change and disruption - not a bad mindset for today’s business world.
Con - Unconstrained: Gamers want (and expect) to be able to do anything. Every video game player probably remembers the disappointment when they reached the “edge of the world” in Super Mario Brothers - that place where it looks like there is a landscape reaching to the end of the horizon, but Mario can’t move any farther. That was a hard and fast boundary. But anything within that boundary was fair game - you could go anywhere, look under every object, rattle every cage. It is hard for some gamers to learn that organizations are not “open spaces” where they are free to roam at will.
Pro - Risk-taking: For gamers, there are no hard and fast rules; there are just risk calculations. And these calculations started at such a young age that they became natural. This can be a very good thing; there is no reward without risk. But gamers -while they hate to lose - may need to learn that there is not always a reset button in real life.
Con - Need for constant feedback: There is a scoreboard in the corner of every video game ever created. Gamers know exactly where they stand in the game at every moment. If you end up managing them, they will bug the hell out of you with their constant need to know where they stand. It is easiest just to let them know, if you can!
Pro - Ready to make decisions: I can safely say that I never made anything approaching a life-death decision in my life before I was an adult. Gamers have been doing it since before they entered elementary school. As leaders, we all want people in our organizations that can readily make quick and appropriate decisions. Gamers are ready and willing.
Con - Multitasking: Success in a video game requires that the players switch rapidly from one activity to another, holding the salient points of the previous activity in mind for use at some future opportunity. Gamers do this quite well. They eagerly move to the next task when the current one becomes hard to solve; fully intending to return to the previous task when they can give it more attention. This tendency annoys employers who would like to see young employees focus solely on one thing.
Pro - Team building and leadership: Let’s go back to my seminar participant, Essa Al Mannai, to describe this one. He explained to the senior managers in the room that while he comprehends the younger employees in his organization quite well, he already senses a “gap” between him and much younger gamers. He told the story of playing a team-based game with his grade school nephews. The younger of the two handed him a controller and said, “Uncle, you’re pretty good at shooting, but not really good with strategy in this game. So you handle the shooting parts. We will tell you what to do and when.”
The six-year-old had assumed leadership and built a team - one that included (as a clearly subordinate member) a senior executive of a global organization who happened to be two decades older than him.
To the gamer generation, this kind of leadership does not seem extraordinary at all.