Why Positive Developmental Leadership and Why Now?

Why Positive Developmental Leadership and Why Now?

An OK Boomer guide to a generational shift.

Several generational, demographic, and modal personality traits are converging to challenge leadership practices, skills, and attitudes into the 2020s. The following is a very brief overview of generational cohorts that illustrates the need to move from the traditional, hands-off, criticism corrections-based management model to a positive developmental leadership approach. The descriptions of the cohorts are based on voluminous research in demographics, sociology, and social psychology, both quantitative and qualitative, by people like Morris Massey, William Strauss, Neil Howe, and Jean Twenge and informed by the research and experience of your humble narrator in speaking with thousands of managers and leaders over the past sixteen years about these ideas. The descriptions do not purport to describe every individual but do illustrate the generational currents that have flowed through the USA since before World War II. The main thesis here is that there is a widening mismatch in attitudes and expectations among workforce leaders and doers. Baby Boomers, who tend to be friendly, focused, and social, are leaving the leadership of Generation NeXt (aka Millennials, who tend to crave praise and recognition,) to the direct and often blunt, independent, self-sufficient Generation Xers, for whom offering subordinates frequent praise and thanking them for doing a job is an anathema. A model of positive developmental leadership must be adopted by Xers for workplaces to be successful and for younger workers to thrive. Let me explain.

The following illustration graphs year (x-axis) and the number of babies born in the USA (y-axis) with demarcations for approximate starting and ending birth years for each of the described cohorts.

The Baby Boomers (birth years about 1945 to 1965) were the biggest cohort in the workforce from the mid-1960s until very recently. Still heavily represented in leadership roles, they are retiring en masse. As free-range children who had a mom at home (who would not let them into the house), Boomers are more relational than transactional, and often show a tendency to invest in and befriend their subordinates. Social and mission-oriented, they flattened organizational structures from what they inherited from leaders of the older Traditional generation (born before 1945). Believing they changed the world, Boomers are great with “big picture” and purpose-oriented goals and like to motivate others based on the meaning and impact of the work. Just as the Traditionals left and took duty with them, now the Boomers are leaving and taking relationships and mission focus with them. They are also leaving numerical gaps in many professions and occupations with insufficient numbers of Xers available to take their places.

Boomers are relinquishing leadership roles to Generation Xers when they can get Xers to move up. From the “live to work” Boomers, Xers created a “work to live” orientation and may be the first generation to take pride in their lack of interest in being promoted. Born from about 1965 to 1985, Xers are the survivors of the “Baby Bust” era of low birthrates. Unlike Boomers, Xers were more likely to have had a mom at work who would not let them out of the house. “Stranger Danger” warnings kept them inside by telling them that the world is not a safe place. Xers were cautioned to protect themselves physically, socially, and psychologically. Compared to Boomers (and isn’t everyone compared to Boomers?), Xers are more independent and self-sufficient and may prefer to work alone rather than to be dependent on a group for success. More transactional than relational, they don’t come to work to make friends (i.e., meet social or relational needs). Xers tend to focus more on tasks than the mission. They are famously direct in their communication. If you are just trying to get the job done, don’t care to make friends, and may even want to keep people at a distance for personal safety, what is the point or efficiency or necessity of all those niceties?

The necessity is that the current cohort of young workers and emerging leaders from Generation NeXt, starting about the birth year 1986, has an almost nutritional requirement for recognition, appreciation, and thanks. Birthrates climbed pretty steadily through the early 1990s and remained fairly high through the recession of 2008. Hence, there is an ample supply of replacement workers and potential leaders. Very different from Xers, NeXters came up in the era of the wanted, precious, protected child around whom the family revolved (and may still revolve). NeXters are the products of a major parenting paradigm shift, informed by the human potential movement. The new model suggested that making kids feel good about themselves was critical. Perfectly illustrated by the participation trophy (the reward for showing up), it often gave children meaningless rewards and the illusion of success without requisite talent or effort.

The consequences of the new parenting/socialization model have been apparent in schools and colleges, as well as in the workplace. NeXters often overrate their skills, underrate the effort required for success, and show sensitivity and defensiveness to criticism and an expectation of praise and appreciation.

There are other, often unappreciated, outcomes of NeXter upbringing. They are the most diverse cohort and are the most accepting of diversity across many parameters. They often show a radical appreciation of differences and an expectation that others show inclusivity. Not surprisingly, they want to have a positive impact on the world through their work. Xers, like Boomers, often had bosses who said: “If you don’t hear from me, assume you are doing OK.” That phrase says it all. It means 1. Don’t expect any praise or strokes. 2. If you hear from me, something went wrong. 3. I really don’t want to hear from you. 4. Work things out for yourself; not knowing or not having the skills is your problem. Traditional hands-off leadership, while purporting to respect workers’ autonomy, was not much fun for anyone, and is an especially poor fit for Generation NeXters.

Positive developmental leadership describes a management model much more appropriate for NeXters. It is grounded in research in positive psychology and happiness studies by people like Martin Seligman, Kim Cameron, and Shawn Achor. The positivity aspect proposes that most people can be happier at work and that happier people are more satisfied, engaged, and productive with their work. It turns out that leader behaviors matter and can be directed at purposefully generating an environment of positivity, growth, and meaning. The developmental feature of the model respects that everyone is learning all of the time and that no one is ever really “done”. Not knowing and the need for information and skills development are completely natural, especially early in one's career. Core positive developmental leadership skills include: helping people engage with and find intrinsic rewards from their work; fostering positive emotions, environments, and relationships; offering positive developmental supervision and guidance; and focusing on the mission, purpose, and meaning of the work. Positive leaders smile a lot, are effusive in their praise and appreciation, and are very careful with corrections. Worker mistakes are opportunities for development, not causes for criticism.

Xers who adopt a positive developmental leadership model are rewarded with higher productivity, higher quality work, improved employee retention and satisfaction, reduced employee burn-out, and higher manager ratings. They will help NeXters develop into the kind of workers we need to take the places of retiring Boomers and help create workplaces where everyone can be happier.

References and resources

Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: How a positive brain fuels success in work and life. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.

Cameron, K. (2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Massey, M. (1979). The people puzzle: Understanding yourself and others. Reston, VA: Reston.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (1991). Generations: The history of America’s future. New York, NY: Quill.

Stein, J. (2013, May 20). Millennials: The me, me, me generation. TIME. Retrieved from https://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/

Taylor M. L. (2007). Generation NeXt goes to work: Issues in workplace readiness and performance. A collection of papers on self-study and institutional improvement, 2, 48–55. Retrieved from https://taylorprograms.com/dr-taylors-articles/

Twenge, J