Mimi Nicklin, a business coach and executive, has seen many leaders blame poor performance and communication on generational differences. But she argues managers should spend less time forcing Millennial and Gen Z employees to conform to company culture and more time on perspective taking and listening. In her experience, practicing empathy can vastly improve team collaboration and lead to better business and individual outcomes. Nicklin is the author of the book Softening the Edge: Empathy: How Humanity’s Oldest Leadership Trait is Changing the World.
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
People don’t always understand each other or work the same ways. They communicate differently, they have different work habits, they prioritize different things, they have different ideas of what constitutes a job well done, or even what the purpose of a job is in the first place. These kinds of culture and value clashes have been in the workplace forever. But for a long time, they were often suppressed by organizations that forced a one size fits all culture. But with the growing realization that these differences can fuel business growth, not just slow it down through friction, they were emerging more and more, and all that demands a different type of leader.
One clear way in which these clashes are playing out in the workplace comes along the generational divide. Managers who grew up in a more rigid work environment are now leading millennials and others who did not. Today’s author says that empathy is one of the most important tools managers can have to better understand other generations in the workplace.
Mimi Nicklin is an ad agency executive and the author of the book “Softening the Edge: Empathy: How Humanity’s Oldest Leadership Trait is Changing the World.”s Mimi, thanks for joining us.
MIMI NICKLIN: Thank you so much for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: So we’re going to talk about generational gaps. I want to place you in a generation. What generation are you?
MIMI NICKLIN: I am firmly in the middle of the millennial generation.
CURT NICKISCH: Growing up, what was your picture of work and what the workplace was like?
MIMI NICKLIN: I think I’m one of those rare people that always knew that I wanted to work in advertising, and there aren’t many of us. Most people fall into advertising. I had quite a clear plan from a young age.
CURT NICKISCH: And your dad was in advertising, right? He was a big wig.
MIMI NICKLIN: Yeah, he was definitely, if you have ever watched Mad Men, he very much lived that era of advertising. So I think I grew up, well, I think I grew up thinking it was going to be really fun, which of course sometimes it is, but certainly I don’t think I had any idea how cutthroat advertising could be. And of course you only learn with experience how creative people respond to the creative industries and the type of emotional intelligence, but also emotional context that comes with creating creative product, whether you’re in advertising or you’re an artist. There’s a lot of heart and soul that goes into creative delivery of work.
CURT NICKISCH: Did you see faults in how leaders ran those organizations? I mean, I just wonder if you chafed at leadership of some of the firms that you were at.
MIMI NICKLIN: I don’t think I ever did at the time. I think now the more I study empathy, the more I study emotional intelligence in the workplace and its impact on mental health and emotional wellness, I think now I can look back on things, and perhaps pick a little bit more fault and with some of the things that went on from a leadership point of view at the time.
But I think when you’re very young and particularly in those days, you just accepted it as it were. I think now, more and more, employees are having a voice and a really analyzing and picking apart how leaders lead. As I said, I think at the time I just accepted it at face value, to be honest.
CURT NICKISCH: I mean, you’re hinting there at this generation gap a little bit. It seems like nowadays you can’t even search the word millennial, which is a truly global generational shift or Gen Z without getting all kinds of articles of the things that young people are demanding at work. What’s your read then on what’s really going on?
MIMI NICKLIN: I think that the millennials tend to get quite a bad rap about what they’re demanding at work, but of course they also do a phenomenal amount of innovation and creative thinking and delivery of change. I mean, ironically, it was the millennials that coined the term work-life balance that gave us that, that gave us that new perspective that probably we shouldn’t be working 24/7.
CURT NICKISCH: Did they? I mean, that seems like that’s a term that’s been around for a while.
MIMI NICKLIN: Yeah. It is a term that’s been around for a while, but if you think the millennials now go up to people in their early forties when they were in their early twenties, we’re talking around about 20 years ago. So they definitely were a huge part of that shift. The generation before them were much more willing to see work as a way of life. It was this generation that started to change that and say, “Hang on a minute, there’s got to be more to life than just work.”
CURT NICKISCH: So as a leader, how do you get past the assumptions about millennials, that they’re snowflakes or just want to do whatever they want?
MIMI NICKLIN: I think the answer really lies in just making sure that you understand where some of that commentary or feedback or thinking is coming from. And the reality is, life is never going to be the same for every generation because their context isn’t the same, the mediums they’ve grown up with, the environment they’ve grown up with. So really to me, it is very much about understanding. Just because the millennials, for example, and soon to be their younger counterparts,