I was shopping for a birthday card for my son. There was one in the poke-fun-at-generational-differences genre with this old geezer on the front. The outside of the card said something like, “Yeah, we had games when I was young too…” and when you opened the card it said, “…games like Gut the Chicken and Don’t Let the Fire Go Out. My favorite was Go Find Water.”

I didn’t buy it…my son doesn’t need any more ammo to help him rag on me…but I did think it was quite funny.

A lot of ink has been spilled on generational differences in the workplace and how to manage GenXers and Millennials. I sometimes wonder if all that ink is warranted. Of course there are nuanced differences between the generations and I am sure those differences can be helpful to keep in mind.

It is just that it strikes me that the subtleties of managing different generations might be the pebbles and sand in the Big Rock Demonstration: if you concentrate on the nuances you might forget to squeeze in those “Big Rock” issues that really matter…to everyone.

A recent article in The Economist said as much.  To summarize: there are generational differences, but individual differences are bigger than any generational differences and that both of these are completely swamped by human commonalities.

There are also practical matters here. Managers have a lot to keep track of. As they try to keep their team firing on all cylinders, it is a lot to ask for them to remember what generation someone is and what generalization applies to one cohort vs. another. Moreover, there is the challenge of trying to apply the nuanced approach in a way that does create a sense of differential treatment in the department.

Taking a more heuristic (guiding principles) approach would steer managers towards concentrating on the handful of issues that are of concern to everyone…the Big Rocks…and making sure those are right before trying to fine tune.

So what might those handful of priorities be?

One of the most popular TED talks to date is Daniel Pink’s The Surprising Science of Motivation. He makes the case that Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy are “…the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.” Pink defines them as follows: Autonomy…the urge to direct our own lives; Mastery…the desire to get better and better at something that matters: Purpose…the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

These are powerful issues for all managers to understand about their employees and try to get right. Does the work feel purposeful to the team? Do they have a sense of a larger mission? How important is Mastery to them? In other words, for their personal development agenda, how deep do they want to go into learning some aspect of the work?

And finally Autonomy. This is an area where so many bosses and employees get their wires crossed and you hear things like: “She doesn’t delegate enough.” “He is micromanaging me.” “I didn’t know we were working in a day care center.”

Here are some questions that can help: Are the employee and manage clear on the objectives for that employee? Are the resources that the employee can use without seeking approval clear? Are the roles and responsibilities (RACI/DACI) clear? Are the check-in schedule and the needed information to report out on both clear? Is the manager clear on what help the employees are looking for from her/him?

Such simple questions. So infrequently answered.

Looking for an edge in increasing your leadership and execution effectiveness with your inter-generational team? Start there.