Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
Decades ago, virtually every employee in every organization was a peacetime employee, a person whose key goal was first, to achieve security, and then some reasonable level of success and a comfortable and predictable life. Peacetime people are still the largest, but they’re not the most important group in the population.
Depression-impacted, peacetime people are Security-Seekers. While the great majority are far too young to have lived through the depression, they learned the lesson of putting security first from their parents or grandparents…or they saw the local factory close, putting a town out of work…or they were let go and discovered their skills had little value…
Because all Security Seekers are depression-impacted and share the fear of financial disaster, people in this group are far more alike than they are individuals. In the 20th century when achieving security was the core goal for almost everyone, organizations were able to effectively deal with peacetime people as members of a group. Operationally, this meant that fairness was defined as identical treatment and outcomes for everyone. It meant identical compensation and lock step promotions were “fair” and outcomes that reflected individual merit and contributions were “unfair.”
A second, small but vitally important group of people has emerged, that of the Wartime Warriors. These people are fundamentally different from the peacetime Security Seekers. They thrive on risk, change and unpredictability; they see far more opportunity than threat in those conditions.
Wartime Warriors are the first group of people since the Great Depression who bear no depression scars. They’ve lived through bad economic times as well as good and their innate optimism is tempered by a strong sense of reality. Honed by hard times during which they still achieved success, these people are genuinely confident. Wartime Warriors are not deterred by lay-offs and the demise of the dot-coms. They find wartime exciting and the only playground worth playing in.
Though small, this group is disproportionately important because these people are the natural leaders in wartime organizations. Wherever conditions require that things be done significantly better! faster! and cheaper! these people need to be at the helm. People who prefer wartime conditions are far more likely to succeed in wartime and inspire confidence and hope in the organization’s people who are not Wartime Warriors.
The third group of people is the most difficult cluster to understand and motivate. These people look like and talk like Wartime Warriors, but while a few ultimately become courageous and entrepreneurial, the great majority never develop the requisite confidence and personal strength.
This group is made up of two sub-groups: one cluster includes young people, especially fairly recent college graduates, who have no memory of the last severe recession which occurred in 1981-2 and they’ve never seen a prolonged bear market. Growing up during two decades of good times, even after the stock market tumbled in 2000 and the economy stumbled into very slow growth, this group continues to say they expect to achieve major success, within – at the most – five years. But their confidence and optimism are illusory. Without the experience of hard times, courage and tenacity are untested and, therefore, undeveloped. We can’t know what this group’s long-term attitudes and expectations will be because that will largely depend on what happens in the economy during the next five or so years.
The other people in this third group initially chose peacetime careers. They joined GM, IBM or 3M or they became accountants or lawyers…These people moved to wartime companies in the second half of the 1990’s, either because the potential rewards were so breathtaking and/or because their self-esteem required that they join wartime start-ups to assure themselves that they, too, had what it took to be a Wartime Warrior.
When the bubble burst and the good times ended, the great majority of these people went back to the kinds of organizations and careers they had originally selected.
We might call the third group Transitional: people who want to be Wartime Warriors and aren’t; young people who are still in the process of developing strengths and confidence; and the very small number of peacetime people who discover that wartime conditions are exhilarating.
Wartime conditions, especially in start-ups, involve potentially very high risk/very high returns. That appeals to a new group, people who are truly post-Depression people. Exuberant opportunity and the absence of Depression scars allow some people, those who elect to join wartime start-ups, to prefer excitement over security.
People in peacetime organizations prefer merry-go-rounds. Those in wartime organizations choose roller coasters. People who flourish in wartime are very different from those who succeed in peacetime.