Managing Generational Difference

I trained a group of leaders last week on Improving Work Relationships and Company Culture by Conquering Hidden Bias. During the workshop, we had a tangential discussion about generational differences in the workplace.  One leader felt that too much is being made about the challenges faced among generations — that we’ve always had multiple generations in the workforce and we’ve adjusted.  Others expressed concerns around the technological differences, knowledge gaps and varying work ethics.  A few more felt that bias is created by categorizing and stereotyping generations in ways that further exasperate the gaps. Perhaps the expressed concerns are valid.  However, this is the first time in our history that we’ve had five generations in the workforce at one time:\

  • Traditionalists/Silent Generation (born approximately from 1922 to 1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born approximately from 1946 to 1964)
  • Generation X/Baby Busters (born approximately from 1965 to 1980)
  • Generation Y/ Millennials (born approximately from 1981 to 1997)
  • Gen Z /iGeneration (born since 1998)

And with these five generations, there are challenges inherent in the 76 years between Traditionalists and Gen Z — challenges that are palpable and worth noting. These differences are characteristic of most workplaces and include varying personalities, preferences, values, attitudes, beliefs, backgrounds, behaviours, communication styles, technological expertise, organizational knowledge and experience. The challenge for managers is to create environments where every employee can thrive and work to their fullest potential, regardless of their demographic or diversity status.

Rather than focus on our differences, we can focus on collaboration and leveraging this diversity to empower innovation and branding.  We have the widest breadth of talent in our workforce in history.  Companies have access to an expansive array of talent, skill and knowledge to create products and service that reach an equally broad consumer base.  As our business landscape expands, we will need all the talent we can develop. Leaders will be required to discover new ways to meet the ever-increasing needs of their rapidly rising diverse workforce, as well as find sensible and feasible ways to leverage that diversity for competitive advantage.

Three considerations for leading and managing multigenerational teams are:

Age – We live in an era where members of different generations interact and bond most with employees of similar age. Considering the age span within companies, the propensity for “birds of a feather to flock together” can challenge the desire to have high functioning multi-generational, cohesive teams.  To create more cross-generational collaboration, embrace, utilize and honor the innovation and productivity benefit gained by the knowledge and experience of Traditionalists and Baby Boomers coupled with the fresh perspectives, ideas and technological abilities of Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z.

Values and Work Ethic – Each generation brings different values to the work arena. Events occurring over time, like economic recessions, wars and technological advances have shaped the values and ways each group works. Generally, Baby Boomers expect younger employees to share their level of commitment and respect for hierarchy. Differently, Gen Xers desire flexible work hours and prefer less supervision than Gen Y.  Gen Z values flexible work schedules, prefers more managerial feedback and time off of work for community involvement. If left unchecked, these differences can create a ripe opportunity for workplace conflict. Being able to grasp these values and work ethic distinctions are crucial for managing multi-generations successfully.

Communication – Researchers have found that there are easily observable variations in generational communication preferences. Gen Y and Gen Z are most likely to gravitate toward social media while Baby Boomers and Traditionalists will prefer to communicate face-to-face, via phone call or text messages. Openly addressing preferences and finding ways to blend communication styles will alleviate frustration and enhance team output.

When working to reduce the impact of generational differences, leaders should:

  • Demonstrate flexibility. Different age groups have varying personal and professional needs. Be sure to create a workplace that is open and flexible to diverse ways of thinking and working as well as work attitudes.
  • Vary Communication Method. Leaders (and team members) must be sure to use multiple communication channels when addressing their employees, including different meeting formats, personal communication styles and digital media use.
  • Know Employee Feedback Preferences. As different generations bring new expectations to the office, frequent feedback, evaluation and encouragement will be increasingly important for managers to implement as part of the daily work routines while balancing less frequent needs among more senior team members.
  • Create space for knowledge sharing. Encourage Traditionalists and Baby Boomers to act as career mentors for the Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z, as well as inviting each generation to mentor the next generation below them. At the same time, create an atmosphere of idea sharing and openness where employees are heard and encouraged to try new processes and procedures without fear of job loss.  Foster a culture of inspiration and innovation led by Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z and embraced by Traditionalists and Baby Boomers.
  • Focus on goals and set clear expectations. Each generation brings strengths and opportunities in their approach to the work at hand.  Clear goals and expectations put each team member on an even playing field. Without micromanaging, set the goal and expectation and allow problem solving to occur without dampening enthusiasm.
  • Mentoring and inclusion. Encourage cross-generational mentoring. Each one has different strengths, experiences and knowledge. Inclusion helps use those differences to improve teamwork and obtain faster results.
  • Break the bond of tradition. If there is a better way to do something, take the suggestion. Although five generations may be part of the team, the best idea should always be taken. Taking the opinion of the senior most person in the room when a better idea is presented may very well lead you to slower or no progress.
  • Show employees the future. Tell employees where the organization is going, how they fit in, and how to prepare. Encouraging career planning for those with a number of years ahead, and retirement planning for those getting ready for it will help to engage workers in the here and now, as well as the long-term possibilities. Employees tend to work harder to achieve organizational goals when they understand how it leads them on a path to their professional goals.
  • Encourage balance. Employees of all ages place a high value on balancing their work and personal lives. However, depending on their generation, balance will look differently. Leaving work before the kids come home, taking full weeks or a month for a vacation, flexible work hours, and working from home are generational preferences. Asking employees what they prefer in order to maintain work-life balance will help you manage generational needs, ultimately leading to employees working hard to achieve the businesses goals.

From an organizational behavior management perspective, many issues can be affected by generational differences: turnover, recruitment, morale, teambuilding, communication, and the effectiveness of rewards, feedback and ultimately achieving organizational objectives. Taking time to understand and manage these matters.  How well leaders manage difference today will determine how successful businesses will be in the future. Today’s leaders are asked to manage diversity, including generational difference, with sensitivity, competence and an eye to inclusion and development.  I know that every person is unique with different values, knowledge and experience. I also know that we cannot generalize and lump everyone into classifications that do not quite fully or accurately represent the spectrum of workers.  But, for the sake of imparting helpful change focused information, I took the risk because understanding the trends helps us to better understand some of the pitfalls to avoid and find common ground for working together to improve our workplaces.

Sources:

Lancaster and Stillman (March 2003). When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work

Lancaster and Stillman (April 2010). The M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation Is Rocking the Workplace.

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