July 27, 2011

Accountability Across the Four Generations

by Elizabeth Donahey in Generations

For the first time in the history of our workforce, the four generations are working together all at once. Or are they?

When employees’ perceptions vary on what it means to be accountable from one generation to the next, employers will be challenged with raising both team and individual levels of accountability. “There is a growing realization that the gulf of misunderstanding and resentment between older, not so old, and younger employees in the workplace is growing and problematic. It is a rift that will not heal itself of just go away…it is a problem based in economics, demographics, and world views that must be confronted to be solved (Generations at Work, Remke, Raines, Filipczak).” This situation presents two distinct opportunities that employers and employees need to be intimately aware of:

1) Accountability Culture Shift: The definition of accountability during the days when Veterans and Boomers dominated the workforce and work culture. As the workforce ages, the dominant cultural climate shifts.

2) Cross-Generational Accountability AlignmentThe differences in perceptions and definitions of accountability across the four generations that shape individual and team performance.


The definition of accountability is being responsible for your own actions, and, that your actions are explicable, clear, and understandable. Being accountable for your actions inspire others to trust and rely on you. Accountability is a concept in ethics and governance with several meanings. Accountability is often used synonymously with responsibility, but there is a distinction that is often misunderstood and overlooked. For example, a manager assignes a task or project to their employee. Accountability means that even though the manager can get someone else to do the job, he or she is accountable to produce the results within the agreed upon expectations (e.g. quality, scope, time, or cost). If the job isn’t done right, the only person to blame is the manager, because even

though you’ve delegated the responsibility, they are still accountable.

According to Linda Galindo, Linda Galindo, accountability expert and author of “The 85% Solution: How Personal Accountability Guarantees Success—No Nonsense, No Excuses,” describes:

Unlike responsibility (the before) and self-empowerment (the during), personal accountability is the after. It’s a willingness—after all is said and done—to answer for the outcomes of your choices, actions, and behaviors. When you’re personally accountable, you stop assigning blame, “should-ing” on people, and making excuses. Instead, you take the fall when your choices cause problems.


So why is the accountability so relevant and critical today? As one generation begins to move towards retirement, the younger generations begin to take the lead position in setting the cultural expectations and tone within the organization. This leads us to the second opportunity for employers and employees: By increasing our awareness of the cultural shifts taking place within company where a new generation’s perception of accountability will drive the collective or overall company. Take a look at the company’s demographic makeup. Among generationally diverse populations, having a clear understanding of what perceptions are the dominant ones means looking at among the various departments and teams. This is especially critical if there is a significant number of Veterans and Boomers approaching retirement.


A Baby Boomer may misperceive a Gen Xer as not being accountable on a project because of the generational differences that shape their perceptions, work habits, and communication styles. Boomers generally tend to be team-oriented and optimistic, whereas the Xers tend to be independent and skeptical. Likewise, a Gen Xer may be led to think their Millenial employee is wasting the company’s time and money, and ultimately underperforming when she sees them constantly on her smartphone texting and talking to everyone in the office. In reality, the Millenial’s behavior was simply highly social and they were actually strategically gathering project-relevant information through the use of their extremely connected social network. In this example, what was perceived as a weakness was in fact a strength on the part of the younger generation. We have to see past the diverse set behaviors and instead focus on the outcomes we benefit from when we raise our levels of accountability. Getting these groups to perform more effectively means getting them to align to a common definition of accountability. In order to better align to this common definition of accountability, companies literally must know who they are working work which leads us into the Accountability Culture Shift.

If we are aware of the generational differences on what it means to be accountable across the four generations, then we are better positioned to raise our personal and team accountability to the next level.

So what makes each generation’s unique perception of what it means to be accountable? Let’s take a deeper look.


Born between 1922-1943. Ages: 68-89

Veterans have a very strong work ethic. Think Nike’s tagline Just Do It. When assigned a challenge, Veterans somehow, someway it will get it done. The history behind this demographic is that they have served in the military or been married to someone who did. Their work attitude and actions are highly respectful of seniority, title and rank which shapes their personal and team accountability. The Great Depression and World War II were major influences on the work culture they foster. They are very pragmatic and practical.

Key Accountability Driver:Others before self and dedication.


Born between 1943 and 1960. Ages: 51-68.

Baby Boomers invented the 60-hour workweek. They are competitive to a fault and with a “work-til-you-drop” work ethic. They have a history of turning endings into beginnings. With most now nearing the traditional retirement age, they have no plans to sit still and let life pass them by. They see retirement is not the end of a career but transition to a new career. Boomers are optimists about accountable their own destiny and strongly believe that having a good plan in place will set you up to for success. They are concerned for hierarchy or rank than Veternans, but still respect the hierarchy of leadership, especially when they can be part of it. Their motto may be “no pain-no gain” attitude to set them through.

Key Accountability Driver:Hard work and team players.


Born between 1960 and 1980. Ages: 31-51

Gen Xs are independent, free agents of the workforce – they are self-reliant and entrepreneurial. They don’t find any value in wasting time with non-essential stuff. Gen Xs grew up alone because both Boomer parents were working creating the term latch-key kids. In addition ’80’s and ’90s, 40% of their parents were divorced and/or lost their jobs during the 1990’s. As a reaction to the Boomer generation, Gen Xs strongly believe work life balance and protective of family time. Xer’s are healthy skeptics, pragmatic, and respect leaders that are accountable and competent. They have no respect for title or rank because their parents who had lost their jobs regardless of the positions they held in the workforce. Xers tend hold themselves accountable to their career while keeping their personal and family life in balance with flexible work scheduled, and don’t value the traditional parameters as their predecessors.

Key Accountability Driver:Life-balanced and individualistic.


Born between 1980 and 2000. Ages: 11-31

Millenials are the most entrepreneurial of the four generations. Their work ethic is strong. Most worked at legitimate jobs before they left high school. Millianials are technology-savvy. Their culture is shaped by constant access to social media, mobile communication devices, and online connectivity. They are able to multi-task efficiently and effectively. They are very connected through the Internet to their social life and work, without geographical limits. As a result of their connectedness with others despite geographic or technological boundaries, in contrast to the Xers, Millenials gravitate towards teamwork, and have helped to re-define “team” a shift from what the Boomers and Xers had known.

Key Accountability Driver:Making a difference in the world and respecting diversity.

Avoiding underperformance issue means understanding what accountability means at the generational level. To make both team and individual behavioral shifts, we must understand the driving forces behind the perceptions in order to shape and change behavior, and, in turn, shape the culture in our workforce. Bringing the four generations together under the same roof presents some unique challenges. Leaders need to be aware of in order to create a successful, highly accountable, high performing work culture.

Sources: Zemke, Raines, Filipczak’s “Generations at Work.” Dr. Ira S. Wolfe, “How to Manage Multiple Generations in the Workplace.”

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