As much as we like to talk about generational differences (the “command and control” Baby Boomer or the “lazy” Millennial), does age really determine how you’ll perform on the job?
Of course not. But life experiences and backgrounds combined with the major cultural, social, and political events that occur during our formative years undoubtedly shape how we interpret and react to the world. To a large extent, our mindsets, communication styles, comfort with technology, and work habits are heavily influenced by the era in which we grew up.
From GIs to Millennials, we have six generations co-existing in America. While many of these individuals are long retired – and others are still in pre-school – many of today’s leaders may be managing up to four different age groups at one time.
- The Traditionalists or Silent Generation (72 to 89 years) – challenging economic conditions and longer, healthier lifestyles mean that this group of experienced and loyal workers is still represented in many organizations. Conventional and frugal, this group commands respect and prefers to follow a chain of command. Not surprisingly, these characteristics can create conflict with younger and more freewheeling co-workers.
- The Baby Boomers (50 to 71 years) – possessing extensive management skills and a strong work ethic, many of these individuals look forward to retirement but worry about financial security. This cohort is independent and prefers that their (often younger) managers give them free rein to perform.
- Gen X (35 to 49 years) – many of those in Gen X have grown up to be tech-savvy, risk-takers, entrepreneurial-minded. They tend to seek a good work-life balance, leading them to be unfairly categorized as lazy or “not a team player” by some of their older peers.
- Millennials (14 to 34 years) – this group has largely come of age in uncertain political and economic times. Many of those over 18 have struggled to find meaningful work, leading to frustration and a somewhat jaded view of the world. Confident and assertive, this generation was raised with technology, makes connections through social media and considers themselves a global citizen. They often seek a cause to support as much as a paycheck – setting them apart from their more traditionally minded coworkers.
Add in the yet-to-be-named cohort of those born after 2001 who will begin entering the workforce in just five years, and the generational gap grows even wider. Sometimes referred to as the iGen, these new workers will tend to be globally minded and “connected” through ubiquitous technology.
This disparity creates challenges for leaders. How does the newly promoted Millennial manager motivate and direct employees who have more experience? How does the senior executive Baby Boomer relate to team members who are the same age as her children and grandchildren?
Organizations can do a lot within their overall culture development efforts to build bridges between the generations. But, the first step to navigating these sensitive situations is to learn to recognize and adapt to the many different styles of your workforce. Here are a few things to consider:
- Understand and be aware of the overall tendencies of each cohort, but don’t confuse personality characteristics with generational attributes. A Baby Boomer can be lazy, and a Gen X employee can be the hardest worker on your team.
- Focus on communication – and cast a wide net. If you’re a Millennial who is most comfortable with text messages, be aware that some of your older employees may prefer email, a written memo, or an actual conversation, particularly when important or difficult news has to be discussed.
- Don’t create a one-size-fits-all recognition system. While younger employees may appreciate a social media post, older employees may place greater value on more formal types of recognition.
- Create opportunities for employees of all ages to experience their common values and know one another better as people. Enable them to collaborate with and learn from one another. For example, consider creating a mentoring/reverse mentoring program where older employees meet regularly with younger ones in informal settings.
- Accommodate different preferences and work styles. For example, younger employees may value liberal flextime to deal with family and child-rearing responsibilities. Older employees may have no issues working 9 to 5, but may value extra vacation days to visit an out-of-state grandchild or take a special trip. To the extent that you can, try to accommodate personal needs while maintaining fairness.
And lastly, value and celebrate the rich experiences and diverse views that these generations add to your organization. Working in an echo chamber of agreement and similarity rarely leads to great achievements. The creative tension that exists when generations collide can be one of your greatest strengths if you channel it effectively.