In our digital and culture transformation consulting work with several companies, we always talk about the resistance of employees to transformative changes, in particular that of millennials and non-millennials such us Generation X (Gen X) and Baby Boomers.
But when I spoke to a senior executive of a large educational institution implementing large-scale transformation, he said it is actually the Gen X most resistant to change, relative to the other generations.
This has intrigued and led me to validate such finding. I spoke to chief executives of a consumer goods company and a trading firm. They too agreed that Gen X may likely be the most resistant to change, basing it on their interactions with employees.
We likewise conducted a change readiness survey related to company-wide transformations in a local firm with more than a hundred employees, where more than 50 percent of them are Gen Xers. It revealed that 63 percent of Gen Xers displayed “high resistance to change”, whereas only 9 percent and 47 percent were displayed with millennials and Baby Boomers, respectively.
Does this mean that, indeed, Gen X workers, those born between 1965 and 1980, are the most resistant to change in the workplace?
Now, this may run contrary to the recent results of the Global Leadership Forecast 2018 published by Development Dimensions International (DDI), which studied more than 25,000 leaders spanning 54 countries and 26 major industry sectors. It discovered that Gen X now accounts for 51 percent of leadership roles globally, with an average of 20 years of workplace experience and are primed to quickly assume nearly all top executive roles.
In addition, 67 percent of Gen X leaders are also effective in “hyper-collaboration,” and are working relentlessly to break down organizational silos, enabling faster innovation by getting people working together to solve customers’ and their organization’s issues, according to the findings.
But these are Gen Xers in leadership roles. How about those who are in non-leadership roles, like rank-and-files, workers, even supervisory level?
In the research work of organizational psychologist Renee Ortega in 2010, published in the book Workplace Wisdom, she described Filipino Gen Xers as “adaptable, flexible, technology savvy, goal oriented, and responsible” but also “impatient, not attentive to detail, not fully committed to work, and fickle-minded”. In other words, opposing work values are present in a Gen X worker, perhaps depending on the workplace environment. Resistance stems from not managing them well.
It’s been established in several studies that Baby Boomers, those born between 1945 and 1964, are the most resistance to change, due to hardcore beliefs and values; but their numbers are dwindling in the workplace. On the other hand, millennials, those born from 1981 to 2000 and are a growing population in the workplace, are the most open to change.
But Gen X, referred to as the “lost generation” because popular media and business seldom spoke about them, is often characterized by high levels of skepticism, “what’s in it for me” attitudes, higher levels of caution and pragmatism, and testing of authority multiple times.
Moreover, based on our interviews, Gen X workers not in leadership roles and in their mid-career stage, are likely to be resistant to change because they “have not progressed” in their careers, and therefore intransigent to change initiatives. That’s why we often hear from bosses the description of resistant employees as having “sungay” or horn, a figurative portrayal of bull-headed employee who most likely is a Gen Xer or Baby Boomer.
Therefore, if Gen X workers are not managed well, they can be the most resistant group of workers an organization can get. So how do you manage Gen X workers to quell their resistance to change?
Several studies also point out that a Gen Xers insist most on being part of the decision-making process because they have close to two decades work experience. They are likely to ignore a change initiative when they are not clear about the vision or do not believe their opinions are valued. They are also more likely to reject change that impinges upon his or her personal life, a concept supported by studies that suggest Gen Xers have greater sense of work life balance.
In this era of digital transformation that involves massive changes in the organization, it’s critical that leaders understand and appreciate how to manage the different generations, and not only focus on the broken-record-like dictum of only learning “how to manage millennials”. Gen X is a strong and influential force in the workplace who can dictate the success or failure of organization changes.
Regardless of generational differences, leaders need to involve employees when planning for change and implementing it. Constant and clear communication is necessary. But leaders need to understand and appreciate the nuances in the views of different generations.
The author is President & CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation firm. He is the Chairman of the Information and Communications Technology Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.