Tactics for Leading Across Generations
The Secret to Managing Multigenerational Teams
Feeling a little out of sync with colleagues of other generations as you work on projects and in teams? Some people call this the generation gap in the workplace.
But here’s a secret — regardless of age, they’re probably a lot more like you than you might expect.
For example, Millennials want to be part of a team, not just because it enables the work and their goals, but also because of the social interactions it provides. Working on teams — with people they trust and care about — is how Millennials feel connected to the organization. And that’s true for employees of all generations.
Is it possible to work with and lead people across generations effectively without pulling your hair out? Absolutely.
Creating a team dynamic that works for everyone is essential — and it can be done.
10 Tactics for Leading Across Generations
Adapted from over a decade of our research and our book What Millennials Want From Work, here are some tactics to address the generation gap in the workplace and help leaders look past the stereotypes and effectively lead across generations.
1. Learn from each other.
Older workers often have significant experience that can’t be learned in school, and younger team members usually appreciate it when that wisdom is shared. But being told that something needs to be done a particular way just because it’s “how things are done around here” will open the door to pushback. Those who’ve been in the workforce for a long time should recognize that just because that’s how things have been done in the past, doesn’t mean it’s the best way for the future.
There’s a stereotype that younger workers think they should be exempt from boring work. Older team members may remember “paying their dues” earlier in their careers and have no sympathy. But what if, working together, you could come up with alternatives to doing repetitive work, or at least find ways to reduce it considerably?
Younger employees, many of them digital natives, may have ideas or technology options that haven’t been explored, and more experienced employees have the knowledge and expertise to make new processes work. That’s why some organizations, recognizing the need to bridge the generation gap in the workplace, are beginning to partner their older and younger team members in formal or informal reverse mentoring arrangements and equipping everyone to work together on virtual teams effectively.
2. Flex the hours.
Want to keep your organization competitive in retaining employees of all ages? Take steps to promote work-life balance.
Workers of all generations report that they’re more likely to stay with their organizations if flexible schedules are allowed and telecommuting is supported. And employees of all ages are willing to work long hours but also want to have a life outside of work. Whether raising families, preparing for retirement, caring for elderly parents or pursuing personal interests, employees often feel that their organizations forget that they have lives outside work.
Leading across generations involves helping everyone on the team manage the work-life juggle, balance priorities, and fight burnout. Teams that feel overburdened can work together to find a solution so everyone isn’t working all the time. Perhaps one team member would be happy to start work early, while another wants to work late. Or, you could balance out off-hours coverage so not everyone has to be responsive 24/7.
3. Share values and show respect.
We often hear that younger people are disrespectful of older employees and people in authority. We also hear complaints that older people show no respect for younger talent and ideas. Many people think that older and younger people value vastly different things.
However, our research has proven that different generations actually have fairly similar values. For example, “family” is the value chosen most frequently by people of all generations. Other shared values include the following:
The reality is that everyone wants pretty much the same thing, which is for their organizations to cultivate a culture of respect — they just don’t define it in the same way. Some would argue this is really the secret to teamwork and leading across generations.
4. Be a trustworthy leader.
By and large, people of all generations and at all levels trust the people they work with directly — such as bosses, peers, and direct reports — more than they trust their organizations. And people trust their organization more than they trust upper management.
What do different generations expect from their leaders? Conventional wisdom says older generations want a command-and-control type of leader and that younger generations want leaders who include them more in decision-making. But our research says that effective leadership is less about style and more about substance. People of all generations want leaders who are credible and trustworthy, above all else.
5. Address office politics.
Office politics are an issue, regardless of age. Everyone is concerned about the effects of organizational politics on their careers. Employees know that political skills are critical to being able to move up and be effective at higher levels of management. Recognize your team for the work they do and ensure they have access to the resources they need to do their jobs well.
6. Communicate change.
The stereotype is that older people hate change and younger generations thrive off of it, but these are inaccurate assumptions. In general, people from all generations are uncomfortable with change and can experience change fatigue. Resistance to change has nothing to do with age; it’s all about how much someone has to gain or lose with the change.
The best way to manage change and be a successful change leader is to communicate. Send out memos, host meetings, or implement an open-door policy that embraces communication. Make your team feel comfortable with asking questions or voicing concerns.
7. Understand the context of loyalty.
Loyalty depends on the context, not on the generation. Studies show that younger generations are no more likely to job-hop than older generations. The perception that older people are more loyal is, in fact, associated with context, not age.
For example, people who are closer to retirement are more likely to stay with the same organization for the rest of their working life, and people higher in an organization work more hours than do people lower in the organization.
8. Do the right things to retain talent.
It’s as easy to retain a young person as it is to retain an older one — if you do the right things. Just about everyone feels overworked and underpaid. People of all generations have the same ideas about what their organization can do to retain them. Employees want room to advance, respect and recognition, better quality of life, and fair compensation. Learn more about how to attract and retain Millennials.
9. Create a learning environment.
Everyone wants to learn — more than just about anything else. Learning and development were among the issues most frequently mentioned by study participants of all the generations surveyed. Everyone wants to make sure they have the training necessary to do their current job well. Create a working environment that enables team members to understand and get interested in what they need to learn to advance to the next level. Build the core leadership skills needed in every role and career stage to boost employee motivation.
10. Build coaching skills.
Almost everyone wants a coach. We’ve heard that younger people are constantly asking for feedback and can’t get enough of it. We’ve also heard that older people don’t want any feedback at all. According to our research, everyone wants to know how they’re doing and wants to learn how to do better. Feedback can come in many forms, and people of all generations appreciate receiving it. Building coaching skills and a coaching culture at your organization can help.
Equipping everyone to hold coaching conversations can help create a stronger organizational culture for workers of all ages.
In summary, our research shows that, fundamentally, people want the same things, no matter what generation they represent. The so-called generation gap in the workplace is, in large part, the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding, fueled by common insecurities and the desire for clout. Successfully leading across generations is actually pretty straightforward.
So let go of your assumptions about generational differences at work, and spend more time developing your leaders of all ages.
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