Like most of you, I watched in horror the events that took place in Littleton, Colo., a few months ago. I couldnt help but think about how, in the near future, our role as leaders and managers will need to be adjusted to meet the changing needs of this new generation.
We have just become accustomed to the eccentricities of the Generation Xers the so-called Me Generation. And now we begin to observe the latest generation of kids as they progress through their formative years. In no time at all, they will be the people we hire to produce our goods and services and in time, to run our organizations and our country.
What changes will we need to make in our leadership styles to help these young people take their place as productive members of society? At first blush, this might seem like a difficult task a far cry from the simplicity of the people described by management theorist and author Douglas McGregors Theory X and Theory Y.
Or is it?
In the aftermath of Littleton, we see what is, perhaps, a microcosm of our society. There are any number of young people who are studious, hardworking, anxiously preparing for college, active in school and community activities and well adjusted and mature.
Some students were straightforward about their values and spiritual convictions. Some, because of the tragedy, were thrust into positions of leadership, and with little advanced training, responded heroically.
At the same time, we learned there were others who felt different out of place, disenfranchised. In this case, they acted violently, with no thought to the harm they were inflicting on innocent people. We wonder what has created these aberrant behaviors.
But to some degree, they have always been with us. Every generation has had a group of people who, at that age, felt out of touch. In every generation, there has been a fringe group that seeks recognition by being different, like the flower children of the 60s. In time, the majority grew up and took their places as productive members of society.
The difference might lie in the fact that todays young people have grown up in a time when discipline and accountability have not been given a great deal of emphasis. Many spend hours each day in isolation, playing computer games in which killing and maiming are rewarded. The more advanced your skill level, the more complicated and challenging the game becomes.
Violence and death take on a surreal ambiance, a form of escapism. The people who are most negatively affected by this pastime are not easily identified. The young shooters in Littleton were once Boy Scouts.
At the same time, many of their peers were using computers to learn to do research and expand their skills.
To successfully manage these two diverse groups in our companies, we will need to focus on our coaching skills. We will need to listen better. We will need to look for ways to build upon their need for recognition by stressing the importance of the job and reinforcing organizational value systems.
Make accountability a part of your recognition programs. Restructure the work in ways that provide greater challenges. Find ways to make use of their longer attention spans. Anyone who can sit and play one of these goofy games for hours on end must have the skills necessary to remain focused on a difficult task until it is solved.
But above all, remember that the so-called problem people are in the minority. They always have been and they will remain a small percentage of the total work force. Most of the people you will lead and manage in the future are not that different from the employees you have worked with in the past. Just as all people need to feel someone is listening to them and is interested in their well-being, they also need to feel their work is important and meaningful. William Armstrong, a management consultant for 30 years, is president of Armstrong/Associates, a Pittsburgh-based management consulting firm. Reach him at (412) 276-7396 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.