By Granville Triumph
In Part 1 of this post, I discussed the four generations that comprise today’s workforce – Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, also known as Generation Y. With more seniors working well past retirement age and Generation Z poised to join the workforce in a few years, we’re on the verge of having five generations work side by side for the first time in history. The ability to lead and harmoniously integrate such a diverse, multigenerational workforce and maximize the strengths of each group is critical to the success of any organization.
The biggest challenge to leading a multigenerational workforce involves developing an understanding of the widely different perspectives and priorities across generations. This has led to negative stereotypes, from younger workers who are assumed to be lazy and entitled to older workers who are thought of as stubborn and unwilling to consider new ideas. Different styles of communication in terms of both technology and formality of language can easily be misinterpreted as being disrespectful or condescending, causing conflict and dysfunction.
Cultural expectations also vary across generations. How is performance measured? How is a person’s work ethic evaluated? How are individual and group success defined? What role should technology play? How is innovation viewed and nurtured? Is the organization looking beyond profits to deliver value to society as a whole? The answers to and importance of these questions are often very different, not just between Traditionalists and Millennials, but also between Baby Boomers and Generation X. Because Boomers and Gen Xers represent the current and future faces of leadership, respectively, organizations need to figure out how to bring these groups together.
Successful leaders are overcoming generational tension by embracing the energy and new ideas of the younger generation while valuing the experience of older generations. To create competitive advantages and minimize risk, energy and ideas need to be properly channeled without being discouraged, while the experience of senior employees is sought to improve and refine new ideas. Rather than dwelling on differences and feeding stereotypes, leaders must require employees of all generations to be flexible and willing to collaborate in order to solve problems.
Organizations can benefit greatly by having an open conversation that involves all generations. Encourage employees to share what they value, how they expect to be evaluated, what they expect from the organization, how they prefer to communicate, and why. Ask what employees want and need at this stage of their lives. Work to find common ground, but also look to incorporate ideas from all sides and explain how everyone will benefit. Outside of these collaborative meetings, pair younger workers with older workers, but don’t make it a one-way street in which the younger person is expected to simply listen and learn. Both sides have experience and knowledge to share, and both sides need to be able to learn from each other. Seek and share feedback from these pairings, and offer incentives for ideas and innovation that deliver business value.
Most generational tension can be overcome by simply having people listen to someone else’s point of view. By establishing a culture of flexibility and respect and leveraging the expertise of all generations, leaders can effectively manage a multigenerational workforce and seamlessly move the organization forward.