People often ask me the best way to lead a multigenerational workforce. The question frequently comes from frustrated Gen X or baby boomer leaders who enthusiastically tell me stories about millennials who always want fast promotions, who spend too much time on their devices during meetings and who want too much time off.
On the other side of the generation gap, they fear that their best baby boomer workers may decide to retire.
What is a manager to do?
Take a deep breath. Previous generations have led multigenerational workforces with success, and we can too.
Many experts assert, and I agree, that the gap between generations has more to do with the life cycle than with irreconcilable differences. For example, all 20-year-olds will experiment with alcohol and drugs in college no matter the generation. People of this age also tend to be narcissistic. Once couples begin to have children, however, their priorities change. They become more interested in health care benefits, paid time off, how to get ahead in their careers, how to balance the careers of two working adults who are also rearing children and taking care of aging parents, daycare, reducing long commutes, and retirement benefits.
All 20-year-olds will believe they have the solutions that eluded the previous generation, will want to be promoted quickly, will want the latest technology available to their generation, will generally leave after two years of employment (as they are still finding the right careers and work environment for themselves), and will say they want feedback but will still resist constructive feedback.
To my baby boomer colleagues who complain about millennials as the “me” generation, I remind them that writer Tom Wolfe dubbed the baby boomers the first “me” generation for their narcissism and for having many of the traits of millennials I outlined above. If baby boomers want to get in touch with their workers who are currently 20- or 30-years old, I tell them to visit themselves and their peers at that age in their own mind.
Take the time do to this as you’re reading this article. What do you see? As a manager, what would you say to yourself and your peers?
Certainly, economic times, war, natural disasters, and emerging technologies will shape generations — but not as much as many of us think. The Great Depression and World War II taught that generation the importance of sacrifice, loyalty, faith in institutions, teamwork and perseverance. Baby boomers grew up in affluence, but with President Kennedy’s assassination and the suspicions around it, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and feminism, baby boomers doubted institutions, and rebelled against society’s institutions in their youth.
Generation Z was critical of the baby boomers’ idealism and hypocrisy that switched to materialism as they aged. Millennials faced the great recession, colossal college debt, a shortage of good-paying jobs, and global warming fears. They were shaped by 24/7 social media, more equal gender norms and global, diverse workforces, acceptance of gays, and generous parents who provided constant praise and control. Generation Z, now leaving college, is our first truly digital generation. They are more self-sufficient, practical and fiscally conservative than millennials, believe most solutions are on the internet, fear global warming and gun violence, but they struggle with collaboration.
And like the 20-year-olds before them, they will experiment in college, want early raises, crave feedback and cringe at negative feedback, and will be tempted to change jobs every 18 to 24 months.
Still, life’s cycle tempers these differences and provide a predictable path.
Here are some guidelines for leading all generations successfully:
- Show empathy and respect. Start with learning, without judgment, the wants and desires of each of your employees, from the youngest to the oldest. If you are an older manager, the wonderful thing about age is that you can relate to the experiences of your younger workers and those at your current age. While the millennial sitting in front of you, may have tattoos and piercings, he or she probably has the same narcissism, fears, and youthful arrogance and ignorance you once possessed about older managers and the workforce. It is always good to seek to understand before being understood. I suggest you ask them the following questions to learn where they are at:
- What attracted you to this workplace and job?
- What do you like about it?
- What do you dislike about it?
- If you had a magic wand to change one thing, what would you change?
- What training or coaching do you feel you now need on the job?
- What do you want to be doing in one year?
- What do you want to be doing in five years?
The answers you get may surprise you. You will learn in this 45-minute conversation much about your employees, especially if you react with empathy. You will begin to build a meaningful and long-lasting relationship. In addition, it will help you understand the strengths of your workers, and what training, coaching or changes you may be able to suggest shaping a better employee and more effective team. I also suggest you follow up on these conversations quarterly and measure the progress.
- Set norms. Many organizations fail to establish norms about team meetings, goals, communications, how quickly to respond to texts or emails, use of technology, flextime, when to meet in person or by video conference, and expectations for collaborating with each other and for using collaboration software like Slack. Setting such norms is vitally important as it puts everyone on the same playing field and helps reduce stress.
- Value collaborative efforts and a positive work environment. The most effective and innovative teams are the ones that have empathy for each other, allow for open discussion and risk taking, are dedicated to the individual’s and team’s success, and build trust. It is not about who is the smartest team member or the expert. The tech savviness of a Gen Z worker may be a great compliment to the vast experiences and know-how of a baby boomer. The preparation that goes into a successful customer presentation by a Gen X worker may be a great asset to a millennial, making his or her first presentation to a critical customer. The manager is critical for setting the norms for the team by his or her words and example. In addition, the most effective teams receive positive reinforcement at a 3:1 or 5:1 ratio. Multiple research studies show that these organizations have the highest productivity, most innovation, and the highest financial growth.[i] You can recognize these organizations by the way they share information, by the helpfulness of the employees, and by the relaxed manner with which workers speak to each other. As managers and executives, creating this culture is one of your most essential roles.
- Reinforce accountability. Stress meeting deadlines, goals, and following up on your commitments. While our customers, funders, and co-workers depend on these commitments, they also create an environment of trust.
When employees of all generations believe that they are seen and heard, and that their voices and opinions manner, and they see the results and rewards of their contributions, they will be more dedicated and loyal workers, no matter their age.
Managers need to take the first step by building the relationship.
What are your secrets for building an effective multigenerational workforce?
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting. His new book: Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. It has received great reviews and five-star ratings on Amazon. You can buy it online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing.
[i] There are several studies through the decades that have clearly demonstrated the importance of collaborative and empowering managers and a link to organizational performance and innovation. The include the following: Susan Albers Mohrman, Susan G. Cohen, and Allan M. Mohrman, Jr., Designing Team-Based Organizations: New Forms for Knowledge Work, 1995, Jossey-Bass, Inc. San Francisco, CA; John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance, 1992, The Free Press, New York. And David A. Garvin (December 2013), “How Google Sold its Engineers on Management,” Harvard Business Review. Found at https://hbr.org/2013/12/how-google-sold-its-engineers-on-management; And Victor Assad ( Feb. 13, 2018) “Four studies identify the critical dynamics that contribute to team success,” https://victorhrconsultant.com/2018/02/13/four-studies-identify-the-critical-dynamics-that-contribute-to-team-success/.