Emily Marsh September 10 2019

How to build a thriving, multi-generational workforce

The secret to leading a multi-generational workforce might be simpler than you think. By ditching the stereotypes we can embrace the skills, knowledge and experiences of every one of our employees and build more rounded and more effective teams.

Today, many workplaces are made up of five generations of people. There’s the Gen Z-ers, in their late teens and early twenties, all the way up to, in some cases, the Traditionalists, in their 70s and 80s.

This can present a challenge for the managers and HR professionals tasked with leading, engaging and retaining employees. Each generation brings with them different viewpoints and expectations about ways of working and the culture of the workplace.

How does the Baby Boomer that is used to a top-down management style engage the Millennial who wants the autonomy and freedom to create their own path?

How does the Millennial leader give feedback to a Baby Boomer without worrying that they will sound patronising?

How do the older generations keep up with younger employees’ need for constant feedback and continuous learning opportunities?

And how do the younger generations ask for flexible work schedules and time off without fear of being seen as ‘entitled’ or ‘lazy’?

These are just some of the challenges happening in our workplaces right now. If it sounds familiar to you, what are you doing about it? What can you do about it? How do you get people from five different generations all working together effectively?

Don’t dwell on the differences

Are generational differences dividing our workforces? Or is it the stereotypes that are really to blame?

Acknowledging generational differences in the workplace can sometimes help us to understand each other better. But focusing too much on people’s differences rather than their similarities will only serve to drive a wedge between people that perhaps wasn’t even there in the first place.

Avoid the potential to accept the stereotypes of each generation, as these stereotypes will only serve to hold people back at work. As social psychologist Leah Georges explains, “These stereotypes about each generation have, in a lot of ways, created this self-fulfilling prophecy, that people begin to act as if they're part of that generation because we've said out loud that generation is real.”

Instead, we should be focusing on what brings our workforce together. Encourage people to embrace what they have in common so that they can build better relationships and begin to thrive as a team. Regardless of their generation, there are some things that unite all employees: the need for security, a good work life balance, to feel valued, and opportunities for personal development. Let's not forget about the things that are common to every individual in the workplace, no matter their age.

View people as people

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. Not everyone is motivated and inspired in the same way and being a good leader means being attuned to these individual differences and adapting your leadership style to get the best out of people.

As Leah Georges also says, “This focus on generational cohorts has created a space where we just forgot that people are people. What if we meet people where they are? Maybe let’s just do our best to humbly meet people where they are, how they show up that day, generation and all.”

A good leader evaluates people based on their goals, ambitions, strengths and risks factors, not just on the generation they belong to. And everyone within the workforce should be thinking in the same way and getting to know their colleagues, finding out what motivates them. This is where things like personality profiling can be really valuable, as it helps people to understand the true selves of the people they work with. Isn’t that far more powerful than just seeing the ‘entitled’ Millennial or the ‘cynical’ Baby Boomer?

Create opportunities for cross-generational mentoring

There’s a lot that a multi-generational workforce can learn from each other. We typically think of mentorship as top-down, but it works both ways. A Gen X-er or Baby Boomer might be able to use their own experience to offer advice on career growth to a Gen Z-er who's just starting out. Similarly, Gen X and Baby Boomers could benefit from the fresh perspective of their younger peers.

Cross-generational mentoring enables people of different generations to share skills, knowledge and experiences with each other. It can also help to address any generational divides head-on by opening up the communication between people with different views.

So, what now?

Generational differences can cause tensions, conflict, and drive your workforce apart. But only if you let them.

So what’s the answer to the questions we posed at the start? How do leaders create an environment and a culture where people are not held back by generational stereotypes? How do they create an environment where people feel comfortable bringing their true selves to work?

The answer is to shift away from the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset, to treat people like people, and to embrace the different experiences and attitudes of all employees, which can result in a more rounded and effective workforce.

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