Fostering Collaboration across Generations

Collaboration has many beneficial effects. Collaboration helps ensure work gets done and done well. It also builds community, evokes creativity, and a sense of fun. A foundational building block of collaboration is work group engagement. All team members need to be present and committed to the task.

Recently, a business owner described a challenge to collaboration that he faces. A young, intelligent member of his organization had been doing work for a client. The staff member had experienced some difficulty and had completed a work form to get help but had not followed up when he had not gotten a response. The situation came to a head one day when the customer called the owner and said he needed a response immediately.

While standard procedure had been followed, the business owner’s expectation that the staff member would be proactive in getting the client’s problem resolved hadn’t been fulfilled. The owner recognized that his expectation was rooted in his generation’s understanding of collaboration, but he still needed the staff member to be proactive so client needs would be met efficiently and effectively.

Research supports this business owner’s sense that the staff member’s lack of proactivity is partially due to generational differences. In this post, I describe some relevant generational differences, discuss how they relate to proactivity, and then suggest some ways to address them. Please note: Not all young people need help being team players and many people who are older need help learning how to work well with others too!

Generational research has found that people aged 25-34 are more individualistic and more likely to prefer being in direct competition with colleagues than their colleagues who are over 55. The implication for business is that “this dogged commitment to self has also seen 16% of millennials put their personal targets ahead of customer interests….”* Other sources suggest that millennials are team-oriented. However, this same source reported that team-orientation was defined as being together and being seen…, with the latter as a means toward advancement. **

An individualistic orientation, while perhaps more pronounced among millennials, is a characteristic of many Americans. No matter their age, any person with a strong bent toward independence is likely to have limited commitment to a work group. In addition, research shows that people’s tendencies toward independence and interdependence affects proactive behavior in organizations.***

Proactive behavior is important for ensuring that work gets done effectively. In particular, this self-initiating, future-oriented orientation that is focused on improving situations, work flow, and customer satisfaction is highly desired by many employers.

Research on proactive behavior has shown that a combination of personal and situational factors creates the best result for work groups. One important personal factor is how much people think of themselves as independent vs. interdependent. People who conceive of themselves as independent emphasize their uniqueness and define themselves by their internal abilities, thoughts, and feelings. In contrast, people who conceive of themselves as interdependent emphasize belonging and define themselves by their relationships with others.

While people tend to lean toward one style over the other, the good news is that every person varies on both continuums – independence and interdependence. The extent that people define themselves as independent or interdependent depends not only on their history of social and cultural experiences and expectations but also on the expectations of people in their current context.

An important situational factor in proactivity is the extent of autonomy vs. job interdependence people have at work. Jobs that are autonomous provide opportunities to exercise discretion over work tasks because the job isn’t constrained by formal rules and procedures. As a result, these jobs allow people to express their ideas, show their uniqueness, and pursue goals based on their personal values and needs. In contrast, jobs that require interdependence depend on the work outcomes of others and interaction with other people to be completed. In these cases, people learn that they should be aware of their colleagues’ as well as their own contributions. They also feel responsible for others, because they can see how their actions influence collective outcomes.

Situations tend to enhance personal characteristics. The implication of that tendency for this discussion is that when a situation is consistent with a person’s internal orientation, people are more motivated to be more proactive. For example, people who are inclined towards independence and have job autonomy are proactive in seeking ways to enhance their individual career development. In contrast, people who are inclined toward interdependence and have jobs that require interdependence are most likely going to work proactively toward improving work group effectiveness.

Because situational expectations affect the extent to which people define themselves as independent or interdependent, changes to work design can help foster proactive behaviors that improve work group effectiveness. In particular, managers should seek to create interdependent work structures and communicate overtly about the importance of interconnections among staff members. When people who are independently oriented get the message that they need to be thinking of themselves as interdependent and understand the interdependence among their jobs, they will be more likely to engage in proactive behaviors that enhance work group effectiveness.

So, to increase the chance that this young, smart staff member will be proactive in making sure a customer’s needs get followed up on, the business owner should work to make the jobs in his organization more interdependent or at least point out the interdependencies that exist to his staff members. He should also emphasize the interconnections among staff members and the importance of these interconnections. Finally, by highlighting how effective teamwork leads to career development (if it in fact does), the business owner will be more likely to get the attention of this member of his organization who has the bent toward independence that many of the millenial generation have.

*Rainey, N. (2014, September). The millennial code. Financial Director. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from https://www.financialdirector.co.uk/

**DeVaney, S. A. (2015, November). Understanding the millennial generation. Journal of Financial Service Professionals, 69(6), 11-14.

***Wu, C., Parker, S. K., Wu, L., Lee, C. (2018). When and why people engage in different forms of proactive behavior: Interactive effects of self-construals and work characteristics. Academy of Management Journal, 61(1), 293-323.


Reflect and Comment: You might consider Jesus’ teaching from John 15:1-10 as related to collaboration. At a minimum, it would help take this conversation from the psychological to the spiritual level. How does this scripture relate to this post? How do they challenge you? How do they speak to your collaboration challenges?

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