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How NOT to be a Mother…in the Office

Staffer to supervisor who shares the same alma mater:  What year did you graduate?

Supervisor: 1975

Staffer: Oh, I wasn’t even born yet!

There’s more than just a gaping age difference in the office. A culture clash has resulted from four generations working together. As a recent Forbes article noted:

 Take the veterans, (a.k.a. traditionalists) who value hard work and sacrifice…

Enter the baby boomers, a generation of workaholics who value personal fulfillment and view work as an exciting adventure…

Next, Gen X workers want structure and direction. They believe work is a difficult challenge, and they crave immediate feedback….

Finally, Gen Y individuals (the children of baby boomers) are not only tech-savvy, but they are also experts at multitasking. They believe strongly that their work must be fulfilling.

In this generational mix, often the most difficult task for Baby Boomer moms is dealing with staffers who are the same age as our adult children. We want to be their boss, yet we get involved with their personal problems.  We want to make them feel appreciated so we bring cupcakes (correct that, now it’s humus and carrots) for the birthday celebrations.  We even learn to text  rather than leave a voice mail.

But the result can be a mixed message.  Are you their manager or their mother?  How do they regard you?  Not only your management style but your personal style too. It’s how you dress, how hip you are about technology, what’s on your iPod.   Do they regard you as a hopeless dinosaur or as a hip professional?   

You have your own adult children.  Do you really want to surrogate mother and give advice to the lovelorn or  tips on how to get to work on time or save money to move out?  Do you want to be regarded as the perennial office-party planner or money collector for gifts? On the other hand,  you learned to text but do you really want to friend them on Facebook?  Would you rather collapse at home on a Friday night with a decent red wine than join them for a micro brew at the local dive?

 The generational culture clash has been studied by academics, authors,  consultants, and  others but few look at the specific question of how NOT to be a mother a work. Mothering21.com asked two experts, both mothers of adult children,  for some advice.

Cheryl Cran is a management consultant  and author of several books including  “101 Ways to Make Generations X, Y & Zoomers Happy at Work.” Based in Vancouver, she has three children 22, 28 and 30. We chatted on the phone with her:

What’s a zoomer?

A boomer who refuses to age!

Okay lot of us here!  What’s your advice for working with staffers the same age—and sometimes with the same bad habits—as our children?

 Three key points to keep in mind: self awareness, openly communicate, and coach to their higher potential.  By self awareness I mean recognizing the feeling that you want to mother them and that you are like treating them like your own children.

Obviously the best way to manage effectively is not to act like a mother. So how do you handle that, either when you slip into mothering mode or when  they treat you like their mom?

That’s the second point: openly communicating when it becomes necessary. And you’ll know because you’ll feel resentful that something’s wrong. You feel  like a  glorified  babysitter such as when a Gen Y worker starts coming in late routinely and you start to feel like it’s no different than trying to kick your own kid out of bed. 

So other than telling them to buy an alarm clock or two, what  do you do?

 Sit down and tell them: I am not here to be your parent. I am your work supervisor or work colleague. I want you to have  best possible experience at this job but you need to act responsibly.  Then you need to communicate the expectations and the consequences for repeated lateness.

Your third point is coaching. I thought we were done coaching when they outgrew soccer.

Recall your coaching  technique from sports: Wasn’t it to recognize and groom the  higher potential of individual.  Tell a young staffer: I know your goal is to make partner in five years. Here’s the consistent behavior we expect from you. That puts the onus on them rather than the nagging on you.

When we caught up with Pamela Redmond Satran  she was about to head out to Manhattan to apartment hunt with 27-year-old  daughter who had just landed a new job. Also the mother of two sons, 20 and 17, she has written 17 books, including five novels. Her book  and website “How Not to Act Old” is loaded with funny and on-target advice.

 In your book you write: “You don’t need to be mommy or daddy to the entire office, showing up with coffee, remembering everyone’s birthdays, making sure everyone signs the card.”

 The reality is playing the mom role in the office makes you look old, and that’s not good. 

 What does not acting “old” have to do with performing at work? 

To compete Baby Boomers have to stay vital in the work force, and staying vital equals not acting old.

Suppose young workers turn to you for advice with personal issues?

In some ways not doing these things seems counter to your strengths. A strength you might bring to work is your experience and wisdom on a personal level  It’s natural that a younger co-worker might ask you how to deal with  parents or how to move out of the house or a boy friend issue.

So what’s the problem with offering some been-there, done-that advice?

You can easily tip from a surrogate into a more mom or dad role.  And we all know what happens then. They start to feel rebellious, like would if you were their mom. At the same time if totally recuse yourself that could be perceived as acting old.  It’s a delicate line.  Try to gently steer them to talk a friend or their real parent!

So we might master how not to act like a parent but how do we not look like a parent?

Obviously don’t won’t wear a ruffled mini skirt and leggings.  Forget the jeans too. The whole parsing of the jeans is a problem. It’s exceeding hard  to get the right brand and wash. Michelle Obama made J.  Crew cool and while you might not find your size in the store where they stop at size 4 you will find it online.

Why do you feel that glasses are as important as clothes?

 The wrong frames can really age you too.  I called for help from my daughter who helped me pick out new frames when I visited her in Paris.

Any other advice?

Whatever the issue, ask yourself if you were 35 or 40 how would you act? Use that as a reference point. Also you shouldn’t treat a younger co-worker in a way you wouldn’t treat  an older co-worker or someone your own age.

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