How Do You Lead a Multigenerational Workforce?

iStock_000006952019XSmallBy Hadley Catalano

Women in leadership positions are now managing multiple generations of employees, sometimes with as much as a 50-year age gap. Generally speaking, the scenario isn’t entirely new: seasoned employees with years of experience have often worked alongside fresh, inexperienced hires. What is historic; however, is that in the last 10 years, the workplace has grown to include four generations of employees: Traditionalists (1922-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1981), and Generation Y, also known as Millennials (1982-2000).

This historic moment can be attributed to an aging labor force. Once, the golden age of retirement was between the ages of 60 and 65. Today, people are working well into their 70’s. Why? Sometimes the answer is as simple as “because they can,” though the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that more often than not it’s a matter of requiring more than a fixed income in an unsteady economy, one rife with slashed retirement packages and to guarantee postretirement income.

This growing trend of multigenerational workplaces has been well documented by the BLS, as employees stay on well past retirement age and Gen Y workers set to outnumber Boomers and Gen X workers by 2015. But what does it mean for women who must lead multigenerational teams?

Talking ‘Bout My Generation
For directors, the expansion of their work teams has presented complex administrative challenges. According to a recent survey conducted by EY, a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction, and advisory services, three-quarters of the 1,215 cross-company professionals surveyed agreed that managing multigenerational teams is complicated. What makes it easier, however, is understanding the differences among your multi-generational employees.

Experienced executives, Jennifer Mackin, President and CEO of The Oliver Group, a leadership consulting firm, and Peg Newman, Managing Partner of Sanford Rose Associates, have observed generational characteristics and motivators.

According to Mackin, generational commonalities – based on age, cultural backgrounds, goals, influences, and behaviors – are rooted in inherited traits and environmental conditions.

“Some (generations) went through The Depression or more difficult financial times and others grew up in more affluent time,” Mackin said. “Traditionalists and Baby Boomers didn’t grow up with technology but learned that hard work always pays off and you get ahead by putting in the effort. Gen Xers and Millennials have their basic needs met and always have, in general. They are more interested in a comfortable way of life and, therefore, choose other priorities such as flexibility in their work and time for other parts of their life outside of work.”

Conflict can come into effect when generations see priorities differently, Mackin continued, giving the example of how older generations sometimes struggle with technology, which leads younger generations to dismiss their experience and value. Conflict can be reduced by building self-awareness and fostering a community of understanding.

Managing a multi-generational workforce has its challenges, but Mackin and Newman have developed successful strategies to alleviate bracketed isolation, promote age group influence, and cultivate an inclusive work environment, helping managers retain and engage valued multigenerational workers.

Strategies for Handling Age-Based Disparities
“The number one strategy I have seen is when managers spend time with all people on their team,” Mackin said. “Excluding one generation from a discussion, project, or social activity doesn’t help generations connect. Finding activities to do together like bowling or going to lunch will help each employee of different generations get to know each other, which will help them understand each other’s perspective.”

In addition to building work place camaraderie, managers need to motivate their employees by utilizing their occupational strong points – like the tech confidence of a Gen Yer or the expert knowledge of a Boomer. Newman explained that there is much generational cross over between strengths, but it is important to find out each worker’s skill and talents. Doing so not only values and respects the worker as an individual, but also creates an overall more productive workplace.

“The one-size-fits-all approach – the fairness equation – just hasn’t been successful,” Newman said, explaining the same scenario holds true for finding out each employees ideal work environment, work style, and leadership needs. “Each person has a need to have their individual goals and work habits accommodated as much as is reasonable.”

Give Them What They Need
Supervising polarizing work methods and motivators of three generations is intricate, which is why 69 percent of managers polled by EY said their organizations are using work style accommodations, team building exercises, generational differences training, and tailored communications to engage the intergenerational mix and improve dynamics.

It’s also recommended that tangible incentives be used to retain revered employees, including offering flexible work schedules. According to the survey, part-time schedules, adaptable hours, modified workweeks, job sharing, and telecommunication options are becoming increasingly important and will soon become standard. Another incentive recommended is keeping health benefits and retirement packages on the table as incentive for Baby Boomers, who continue to rank these perks as their top priority. Lastly – and perhaps most obvious, promotions are still the number one motivator across generations.

One specific issue that managers really need to address is the discomfort with younger people managing older people. As Liz Ryan, CEO and founder of Human Workplace, recently explained to the Denver Post, as Gen X and Gen Y workers begin to shift into management positions, companies must address the issue directly by “offering young supervisors specific guidelines and techniques for engaging older workers in collaborative styles.”

Despite managerial challenges, multi-age teams can not only be successful, but incredibly beneficial to a company. Each generation brings their perspective to the table and united under one mission, Mackin said, those generational differences create greater success for any company because most businesses serve a multigenerational client base. In order to create that successful multigenerational work environment, managers – regardless of age – must lead by example, showing a willingness to be flexible and adaptive and a commitment to respect and empowerment of all employees.

1 Response

  1. Avatar
    Anna Ettin

    Great overview of the opportunities!

    As the co-founder and chair of a new employee network at my company focused on inter-generational dynamics, we’re exploring these topics in depth. Providing a baseline of knowledge for how/when/why each generation grew up, and their experience in the workplace, has been an effective way to set the stage and create “a-ha!” moments of personal realization.

    We also discuss challenging the preferences and assumptions. For instance, some Boomers who are just as tech savvy as Millennials; if we are assigning roles or tasks based on the perception that Boomers are slow to adapt, we risk losing top ideas and talent.

    The impacts of generational diversity stretch across personal and professional space, making it a hot topic for virtually everyone I meet!