A multigenerational workforce yields distinct advantages. Every generation has strengths that can contribute to an environment where knowledge is shared, innovation blossoms, and valuable lessons are learned. However, clashing generational cultures can also hurt productivity and morale. In severe cases, companies can develop a reputation for proactively avoiding employees from a certain generation, or for avoiding corporate practices that are deemed too modern or too antiquated. This reputation will inevitably damage employee retention and decrease the attractiveness of the organization to prospective employees.
Multigenerational challenges are often rooted in three main differences:
If left unmitigated, friction around these differences can strike a serious blow to overall employee value. According to research uncovered by Kenan-Flagler Business School, “Over one third of respondents said they wasted five or more hours of work weekly (12 percent of the work week) because of chronic, unaddressed conflict among different generations.”
This conflict can be assuaged by understanding the fundamental characteristics of each generation and finding common ground.
To lead a multigenerational workforce, you must have a workable understanding of the general themes surrounding each generation. Gaining this understanding requires knowing what drives each generation while remembering that these motivators are based on generalizations across a large group. Although generalizations can highlight generational idiosyncracies, individuals within the same generation will think or act differently depending on their life experiences.
Typically, each cohort adopts a system of values, beliefs, behavioral patterns, and expectations that vary from the previous generations’, thereby forming a familiar generational identity. Below are some common traits of the five most recent generations (date ranges are approximate and based on publicly available sociological data):
—Traditionalists (pre-1945): hardworking, loyal, cautious, formal
—Baby Boomers (1946-1964): self-focused, competitive, youthful, optimistic
—Generation X (1965 – 1976): independent, tech savvy, skeptical
—Millennials (1977 – 1995): optimistic, competitive, educated, self-expressive
—Generation Z (1996 or later): technology pioneers, diverse, entrepreneurial, creative
Commonly, the conflict between generations stems from their negative perceptions of each other. For example, Millennials are often criticized by older generations for having a sense of entitlement and needing constant feedback. Or, Baby Boomers (who value cooperation, teamwork and buy-in) may become annoyed by Gen Xers—who prefer to make decisions on their own. If these differences aren’t understood, judgment, intolerance and conflict will emerge.
Fundamentally, these differences arise from the perception that a different way of approaching work, work-life balance, career and other job-related decisions is negative simply because it is different. Of course, the merit of an employee’s work or contributions should be the central gauge for determining the value of their approach. Unless someone’s methodology or attitude is causing real problems, it makes sense to use overall performance as the primary measure of success.
Obstacles posed by a multigenerational workforce can be overcome by focusing on commonalities, and by honoring generational differences, not ignoring them. Regardless of personal or professional differences, team members should be able to share high-level values like the desire for success, personal achievement, and support for the company vision. If people can agree on where they are going, it can be easier to talk about how to get there.
For example, more experienced employees tend to know tried and true methods, and have a good understanding of the core market and processes. There is no substitute for institutional knowledge. Younger workers might know how to leverage technology for an improved outcome or process. Since team members share the same high-level goals, both parties should be open to learning and trying new ideas for reaching these goals.
Approaching generational gaps with a partnership mentality can also be a winning strategy. Knowledgeable Traditionalists and Baby Boomers who are frustrated by the lack of experience among Millennials and Gen Z can become mentors. Cross-generational barriers can be broken down through meaningful personal relationships that provide context for discussion when differences arise during work. All generations love coffee, and sharing a cup periodically might help down the road.
Good leaders can unlock the spirit of collaboration by creating projects that involve individuals from different generations. Problems are most likely to be solved effectively when they are looked at from many angles. Team members should be encouraged to discuss their view of the shared assignment and how they each think it should be executed. By encouraging generations to collaborate and learn from each other, you empower them to bring their authentic personalities and unique talents to the table.
Not all problems are easily solved through conversation and collaborative ideation. Differences in specific work habits or attitudes can cause serious friction. Sometimes managers simply need to define what is appropriate or acceptable regardless of a generational gap or perceived lack of understanding. Like a shared company vision, certain behaviors and standards apply across any generation. As always, this highlights the importance of a clear and enforceable set of policies in an employee handbook. Unfortunately, differences sometimes need to be resolved by plainly stating that one person is right, and another is wrong.
Lastly, it’s crucial to ensure that compensation and reward structures are aligned with the values and priorities of varying generations. Is a flat profit-sharing or bonus structure going to deeply motivate an entire team? Perhaps changing the PTO policy will appeal more to a younger generation, while allowing older employees to schedule their time as desired, according to their values. Providing targeted incentives across a multigenerational workforce will help communicate to each generation that their values and priorities are understood and respected.
Divisions are expected in a multigenerational workforce. However, gaps can typically be bridged through understanding, collaboration and communication. To learn more about culture development and improving your organization’s attractiveness to ALL generations, contact us today!
December 21, 2017
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