There’s nothing new about having multiple generations in the same workplace
There's nothing new about having multiple generations in the same workplace. But in relatively recent times what organisations expect of managers in their approach to dealing with people at various stages of their careers has changed dramatically.
For example, it is no longer good enough to assume that older workers are heading for retirement and are therefore less productive or that younger staff must serve an apprenticeship by learning the ropes from their longer serving colleagues. Organisations need people with diverse backgrounds, skills and life experience in order to survive and thrive in rapidly changing tunes. Age no longer trumps youth when it comes to dealing with differences of opinion because diverse perspectives drive innovation. And inexperience is not a valid reason for deferring to older, more experienced colleagues, especially when creativity and new ‘know-how' are called for.
The essential skill set for twenty first century managers includes understanding what each generation brings to the workplace, making sure that everyone's contribution is optimal and ensuring effective working relationships between people of different generations.
Generations and generalising
Making the most of generational differences at work begins with a broad appreciation of the differing values, working styles and work ethic of four widely recognised ‘generations', not as a basis for stereotyping individuals but as a starting point for understanding generational differences and helping people work productively with each other.
The four generations that matter in contemporary workplaces are:
Born since 1981 they are achievement-oriented and confident. Gen Y assumes a 24*7 world and expects flexibility and informality at work. Gen Y people tend to be more accepting than their older colleagues of the productivity benefits of diversity in the workforce. But they are not unquestioningly accepting of older colleagues' experience.
Born somewhere between the mid to late 60s and the end of the 70s they are independent and self-reliant. They tend to be willing to challenge the status quo and are usually engaged by their work but less committed to their organisation than their parents' generation.
The baby boomers
Born between the end of the Second World War (mid 1940s) and the early 60s baby boomers may identify strongly with their work sacrificing family and outside interests in favour of career advancement. Baby boomers value consensus and tend to avoid conflict.
Oldest of all veterans were born during the Second World War or earlier. All of them are beyond traditional retirement age yet some continue to have a major influence on organisational life and society in general. Veterans serve on the boards of organisations large and small are highly influential in public life and are enthusiastic volunteers.
1945 to early 1960's
Mid to late ‘60's and ‘70's
1980's and 1990's
These generalisations are useful because they help managers to segment a workforce and plan to meet its needs. They also helpful for understanding differences in how people think and act at work putting managers in a stronger position to deal with potential sources of frustration and conflict.
Generational differences at work
Differences between the generations have been shown to play out as disparate attitudes to work contrasting perspectives on respect and authority and conflicting expectations of leaders and managers. To make the most of generational differences managers must not only understand the influencing factors but also be aware of how left unchecked each generation's perspective on another can lead to frustration and conflict.
For example a 60 something senior engineer was concerned about the way new graduates spoke with the organisation's senior managers a mix of baby boomers and older Gen X people. He felt the graduates were ‘too familiar' and lacked respect for their more senior colleagues. One of the new graduates a Gen X manager who had returned to university to study for an MBA after her children became independent helped the senior engineer to see that his newer Gen Y colleagues were not awed by rank as his generation had been. They understood clearly that their knowledge especially in terms of technological advances was much needed if the firm was to remain competitive.
To make the most of generational differences it's helpful to become keen observer of people's behavior at work and to use your understanding of each generation's common characteristics to deepen your appreciation of why people behave the way they do. At the same time it's important to not lose sight of the fact that each staff member is an individual with their own unique personality and background. Assumptions about the generational effect should not go unchecked.
For example a newly appointed 30 something CEO was somewhat surprised when an older female team leader who had been working part-time for the past few years applied for a full-time role in his new structure. It later emerged that the team leader had been troubled by the previous CEO's ‘command and control' leadership style but had been unable to secure a more satisfying role elsewhere. The new CEO's inclusive style and the creation of a new role in an area of passionate interest to the team leader in combination with the studies she had undertaken while working part-time gave much wanted new impetus to her career.
Making the most of generational differences
So what has made the difference in organisations that have benefited from generational differences rather than allowing them to become a source of disharmony or lost productivity? It turns out that three key areas of focus are significant – communication recognition and teambuilding.
Communication needs and expectations often vary between people of different generations. As a manager make sure you use and encourage your team to use a variety of approaches experiment with new or unfamiliar ones and above all make sure that communication is effective for and respectful towards everyone.
For example the mature-age manager of a Government-funded agency had been lamenting what she perceived to be poor formal writing skills of her younger staff. She wrote most grant applications herself though she would have preferred to delegate. Keen to reduce dependence on government funding and exhausted by too many failed grant applications she supported staff's idea of using social media for fundraising and was delighted by the results. She came to realise that her own writing style was not always fit for purpose!
Recognition means clearly demonstrating when and how you value everyone's contribution – from the latest recruit to the longest-serving staff member. This does not mean treating everyone the same. Whereas a Gen Y staff member might appreciate a text acknowledging a task done well you risk appearing condescending to a more experienced staff member. Make sure that you understand enough about each generation's values to tailor your recognition of its members' efforts appropriately. An important aspect of the work of managing a multi-generational workforce is also to help each generation recognise what others contribute.
Teambuilding makes a difference for multi-generational teams because it helps the team as a whole understand and build on individual strengths. It also helps build trust and respect between team members despite the differences between them.
For example time spent on teambuilding in an engineering firm helped newer members understand the value of senior colleagues' many years experience to achieving the team's goals. It also helped older more experienced members realise the value of newer technologies such as social media and how much they could learn from younger colleagues.
So in summary:
- understand the four main generations” in contemporary workplaces;
- use this as a tool for understanding differences in how people think and act at work;
- ensure communication is effective for and respectful towards everyone;
- remember to be clear about when and how you value everyone's contribution;
- where you can help each generation recognise what others contribute; and
- build trust and respect between team members in spite of their differences.
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following E-News articles Management Guides are available on the website:
Management Insights Articles
How can I manage them? They're older than me!
Flexibility at work
Boosting employee retention: why people leave bosses not jobs
The qualities of successful managers
Staff engagement: what's the bottom line?
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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