October 2017
Volume 8, Issue 10

Managing Multiple Generations in the Workplace

Understand how to lead a diverse workforce

By Jennifer Wheatley, SHRM-SCP, SPHR

Do any of these statements sound familiar? “Millennials are lazy and unethical.” “Generation Xers are so negative and cynical.” “Baby Boomers don’t have a clue about technology.”

Unfortunately, these are typical stereotypes that we often hear regarding the different generations and there are many more of these stereotypes. It is even more unfortunate that these stereotypes can influence the views and behaviors of managers and employees.

From an article from AARP titled, “Leading a Multigenerational Workplace,” a generation is defined as a group of people who have shared the same events through news, music mood, education, parenting styles, and more during a certain point in time. Another article, “When Generations Collide,” says that, “the events and conditions each of us experiences during our formative years determines who we are and how we see the world.”

Why is there so much discussion and training now on this subject? Well, because we now have five generations in the workplace. These generations are:

• Traditionalists (born 1928–1945)
• Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964)
• Generation X (born 1965–1979)
• Millennials/Generation Y (born 1980–1995)
• Generation Z (born starting in 1996)

The years of birth are approximate but the important point is that each generation brings its own beliefs, perspectives, and values to the workplace. They have various likes and dislikes, preferences on how they work, and unique skills and traits. In addition, they may be motivated by different things and prefer different styles of management.

Although these are generalizations, these groups differ from each other in many ways. What shapes their views are their economic, social, political, and family influences. Their views on the importance of education and money, their work ethic, and their expectations can be dissimilar. They are motivated by different things, have different views on work versus personal life, and embrace technology differently. Their communication styles and their preferred approaches to feedback are often different.

Having five generations in the workplace with very different styles, views, and motivational preferences, can certainly pose challenges for managers. Managers can’t use one approach and expect the same results. In addition, conflicts between employees can also arise when multiple generations are working on the same team. It is generally reported that Baby Boomers and Millennials have the most difficulty working together. It is also believed that all the generations tend to avoid confrontations with the other. As a manager, there are some conflict management strategies that you can utilize when conflicts do arise between the generations. For example, you can help your employees focus on the commonalities instead of the differences. Employees may approach things differently, and that is fine—just focus on the end goal and ensure all employees understand that common goal. As a manager, you can set the example and encourage your employees to cooperate and compromise.

It is important to note that, again, these are generalizations and not absolutes. For example, there are certainly people who are Baby Boomers by their date of birth but with more traits of Generation Xers. In leading a team, it is important to recognize and embrace the differences and alter the approach you take when communicating and motivating your employees.

As a manager, you should understand and embrace the unique contributions that each generation brings and take advantage of the similarities. When communicating, you should vary and target your messages based upon the generational preferences of your workforce. When forming teams, include employees of all ages and cultures, since this brings together a more diverse set of viewpoints. Encourage and support activities that encourage the employees to work together. Managers are often encouraged to treat everyone the same. This is not necessarily the best approach. Flexibility in your management style is a must. Some employees prefer a manager that is more hands on and that provides more oversight, whereas other employees want to be given general direction and left alone. Determining these preferences and adapting your style is the key to a productive and engaged workforce.

Communication is paramount in all we do. Each generation has different ideas and preferences on how they communicate and how they like to be communicated to. As a manager, you can build better relationships and effectively communicate with your multi-generational employees. Remember, a one size fits all approach is not effective. Again, flexibility is key and you should vary your style depending on your audience. You should consider how you want to communicate, use multiple means to communicate (whether face-to-face or via technology, like instant messaging), and be empathetic, considering your employee’s values and preferences.

The presence of multiple generations can pose challenges in the workplace, however, the advantages are far greater. By embracing the differences and adapting your management style, you can realize many benefits including more effective recruiting, better retention rates, improved employee engagement and morale, and more innovation and creativity. In addition, multiple generations in the workplace can provide you with more flexibility, better decision-making, and a great culture. As the demographics continue to change, the importance of embracing a diverse workforce of multiple generations is even more critical. Instead of focusing on the negative stereotypes, focus on and embrace the unique contributions that each generation can bring to the workplace.

About the Author

Jennifer Wheatley, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, is the President/Owner of CenterPointHR, LLC, a human resources consulting practice in Louisville, Kentucky.

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