Whenever a conversation starts up about generational differences in the workplace, it always seems to be a charged discussion. “Those darn Millennials, they have no work ethic and they all expect trophies”. Or “Baby Boomers, they’re workaholics who need to get a grip on what the future of the workplace looks like”. It’s kind of a nasty dialogue. And why is that? Well, largely because each generation was impacted by a unique set of factors that has shaped the way they approach work- and they're all a little different. Here are the roots of a few stereotypes for example:

  • Baby Boomers are workaholics - Baby boomers were raised by the Greatest Generation. The Greatest Generation was around during the Great Depression and admired work ethic, militaristic routines (WWII’s influence), and instilled values in their boomer children around discipline and working diligently for scarce and resources.
  • Gen X wants to be left alone – They’re the “latchkey” kids. A Generation raised in the 1970s and 1980s largely by working parents who left kids on their own to fend for themselves after school. Gen X is sometimes called the “anti-kid” generation. Some say that due to the widespread availability of birth control, the public’s view on raising families shifted. Whatever you believe, families were smaller and kids were left to fend for themselves far more frequently than were Baby Boomers or Millennials on either side of them. Gen X, on the whole, values independence as a result.
  • Gen Y/ Millennials are the ME generation – Dubbed the ME, ME, ME Generation by an article in Time Magazine in 2013, Millennials get a lot of criticism for being needy and selfish. “Everyone expects a trophy” is a phrase you’ll often hear. Parented largely by Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers, Millennials are the product of parents who dreamed big, and wanted to give their kids more than they had. Millennials value mentoring, close relationships with leadership, and appreciate companies that connect them to a larger moral purpose.

I’m guessing that none of those came as a shock. What’s important to take away from each of those blurbs, is that there is a difference between stereotype and preference. I listened to a great webinar recently where speaker Cam Marston of Gen Insights, talked a lot about the differences between stereotypes and preferences. In general, however, I think the most important thing to remember when you’re leading a multi-generation workforce, or tackling these issues is that we all have preferences. To lead multi-generational teams to reach their full potential we must do two things well:

  1. Understand and accept our own biases and preferences. What parts of history influenced them? What did we learn from our parents? Why are certain preferences we have misunderstood? And most importantly, how can we use them as strengths to improve the organizational culture?
  2. Understand the generational biases and preferences of other generations in your workplace. If you know your audience, and you know yourself, you can create positive change. What is important to them and why.

You see, most of this is awareness. Stereotypes and heatedness comes into play when leaders and employees don’t take the time to reflect on the why.

If you’d like to try and create a more effective multi-generational culture, consider how you can compromise. What values must you maintain at all cost, and where can you lead more effectively by showing others that you are listening and understanding them.

Pick the low-hanging fruit to make changes now

Here are some small stakes suggestions, or low hanging fruit, that might work for improving multi-generational team effectiveness in your culture:

  1. If you believe in “visibility” or the old “come early and stay late, I need to see your butt in your seat”, there’s nothing wrong with that. Work ethic is important, but it may be measured or interpreted differently by many Millennials or even Gen Xers who value flex time. Try acknowledging this preferential difference by making a small compromise. For example, offer a new policy where employees can work remotely once a month. People will feel like you’re appreciating their preferences and adapting, and may even work harder as a result. At the same time, you're not sacrificing your gold standard too much. 
  2. Do you have employees who hate meetings and value their independence? This is a common tension between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Research suggests that Baby Boomers value face-to-face meetings above all else, while Gen Xers often think they are a waste of time and prefer to let you know what they’ve accomplished through one-way communication or reports like email. While we tell our clients that face-to-face communication is the gold standard, there are certainly ways that leaders can and should compromise on this issue. For example:
    1. Establishing a purpose for the meeting ahead of time.
    2. Make meetings more fun, and practice including those who you know often aren’t a huge fan. Doing innovative activities or exercises where you’re on your feet, drawing, or writing on post-its are among a few great ways to spark the energy in the room.
    3. Communicate your awareness and consideration of this problem to the team. Let them know that some meetings each year will be optional, but others are mandatory and tell them exactly when and where you’ll expect their attendance.
  3. If you’re working in a buttoned-up culture, and professional appearance is valuable to you, consider adopting a “casual Friday” every week. You don’t have to completely overhaul your current set of standards, but people might feel energized by the flexibility. Be sure to write a dress code to clearly establish expectations. If you need help with this, we have a great resource: Mary Lou Andre of Dressing Well helps us with ours.

Some of these tips might work for you, while others won’t. The point is, it’s not all black and white when it comes to leadership and generational preferences and differences. If we can reach a common ground, and make everyone feel acknowledged and included, we’ll undoubtedly lead more motivated and effective teams.

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