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Knowing Your Workers: Leadership and Authority


leadershipOne of the most important things to any manager, in terms of handling employees, is understanding how those employees view authority and react to it. Many personnel problems have a personal aspect. Individuals sometimes clash because they don’t like each other or are too alike. Ultimately, though, when people respect the leadership chain and have the ability to pattern leadership themselves, they will make good workers, even if in the short term adjustments must be made to better accommodate personalities or communication differences. All of the generations currently in the workforce have ideas about leadership and authority and respond in different patterns based on their own experience. Let’s break these down.

First, it’s of value to look at the old, traditional leadership style – the one we’ve all see in movies and on television. That is the style of the oldest workers, the Baby Boomers’ parents. Most of them have now retired. This type of leadership is hierarchical. The boss is the boss, and what he says goes. There’s a clear chain of command, and people are expected to follow it, not question it. The people who grew up under this style of leadership addressed their bosses, their teachers, their ministers, and even acquaintances more formally, not using their first names, and they accepted new rules as law. Arguing was not admired. People respected authority.

Of course, the Baby Boomers grew up and reacted to this style of leadership by telling everyone to “Question authority,” and “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” which was a fine strategy until they aged into the over-30 demographic and had to take on leadership roles. As adults their view of authority has evolved to being “impressed” by it and their attitude is generally respectful. Their orderly childhoods were both comforting and comfortable, even if as young adults they rebelled against authority figures. From a management standpoint, this generation will be the easiest to deal with because they aren’t opposed to accepting leadership.

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Generation X is different. Their childhoods took place during a time of overwhelming change when the adults in their lives were taking on new roles or refusing to be leaders in any kind of traditional way. As a result, Generation X got comfortable with making decisions on their own even if they weren’t always the best decisions. They saw the adult world as chaotic, and as adults they are unimpressed by authority. They ask why, and they want to be convinced that a course of action is the right one. They’ll follow a good leader, but they need to see the proof up front.

When tasked to be leaders, they value and reward competence and they treat everyone the same. This is a 180-degree shift from how their grandparents saw their superiors and leadership, so to lead this group, you’ll have to be prepared to offer explanations, and pattern competent leadership. They’d also prefer it if you’d get out of the way to let them do their jobs. Managing them can be like herding cats, but if you find good Gen Xers, they don’t need a lot of hand holding either.

Finally, the Millennials were influenced by the Baby Boomers who reacted to the chaotic environment of the 70s and 80s by paying extra attention to their own kids. Teachers and authority figures often wanted these children to approach them informally and made a deliberate attempt to give them positive feedback, therefore Millennials have a relaxed view of leadership. They want work to have meaning and be rewarding. They like structure, and they work well in teams. Unlike Gen Xers they want to be mentored, but they can also need encouragement to do rather basic tasks. Since much of work isn’t actually fun, a good manager will have to come up with extra incentives to get this group excited. On the bright side, if you can make work a group activity, they’re more likely to join in.

This may seem like a lot to process. You may feel that it’s unfair or even counterintuitive to approach these groups differently, but if you want to minimize your management headaches, it’s always a good idea to tailor your leadership to your employees. People aren’t the same, and they won’t respond to incentives the same. Taking time to learn what those incentives might be will save a lot of hair pulling.