Our company, like others, is growing. We’re adding new positions to our teams, and we want our teams to work well together. Should we hire a recent college graduate with energy and creativity but very little experience? Or should we hire for experience and not place an emphasis on education? Our teams are a mixed bunch. Some are middle-aged and others are nearing retirement and have been with the company for years. What type of team member would fit best?
Around the world and across industries, more generations than ever before are working together. Increasingly, it’s younger employees who are leading older team members. The whole idea of generational branding was dreamed up in the late 1970s, when cultural-critic types realized you could modify “postwar baby boom” into “baby boomers”, which would allow you to refer to everyone born in that era with one convenient handle. 1 Generations exhibit similar characteristics—such as communication, shopping, and motivation preferences—because they experienced similar trends at approximately the same life stage and through similar channels (e.g., online, TV, mobile, etc.). Generations tend to share similar values, beliefs, and expectations. It is important to remember that, at an individual level, everyone is different. But looking at people through a generational lens offers useful predictability for those trying to reach, inform, or persuade a large cross-section of a population.
The three key trends that shape generations are parenting, technology, and economics. Currently, five generations make up our society. Depending on the specific workplace, the workforce includes four to five generations. Each has traits and characteristics and are frequently stereotyped, and, broadly speaking, each one has its own set of preferences, styles, perspectives, experiences, and work ethics.2
The Potential – and the Pitfalls – of Multi-Generational Workplaces
Generational diversity has great potential. People from different generations can grow and learn from one another as they are exposed to one another’s ideas and experiences. The new perspectives they gain can spark new ideas and prompt new ways of working. However, the potential for conflict and misunderstanding is very real. Intergenerational conflict within the workplace is a growing issue. A 2011 study found that “intergenerational cohesion” is one of the top three workplace risks.3
Different generations can struggle to understand one another’s values and working styles. Working together and sharing power can be problematic. And as more people delay their retirement, younger generations may feel that their opportunities for career advancement are being restricted.
Six Strategies for Multi-Generational Harmony
So, now that our workplaces are more generationally diverse than at any time in history, but at risk of conflict because of this, how do we all work together harmoniously? Here are six strategies for thriving within a multigenerational mix.
1. Establish Respect
It doesn’t matter how old or how experienced we are, we all crave respect. And, just as newcomers need to respect older generations’ seniority and experience, so do long-servers need to adjust to and respect the talent and potential of younger generations. Only when each group respects the other can both thrive. The key to respecting other generations is to understand and accept that they are different from yours. Consider what motivates people from different generations, what experiences they might have had, and what their working styles are likely to be. The table above can help you.
2. Be Flexible and Accommodating
When you understand what makes other generations “tick,” being able to accommodate their needs and preferences, where practical, can help to prevent division and conflict. Each generation has its wants and needs, and values different ways of working. Older generations often have fewer responsibilities and costs at home and they appreciate the opportunity to work part-time or reduced hours, so that they can enjoy the benefits and rewards of a lifetime’s work. But an increasing number of Gene Xers are part of the “sandwich generation,” responsible for caring for both elders and children alongside their work. And for members of Generation Y, a social life outside of work is often just as important as their career.
3. Avoid Stereotyping
It’s easy to stereotype different groups. For example, if you’re a Baby Boomer, you may think of Millennials as tech-obsessed and lacking in people skills. To Generation Z, Boomers may seem stubborn and inflexible. Everyone is unique, so, instead of assuming the worst, fight your unconscious bias and accept individuals based on their merits rather than as “typical” members of generations. Remember, chances are, somebody may be stereotyping you. You can change their perceptions and attitude by demonstrating a willingness to listen to new ideas or suggestions, and, as we explore below, by sharing your knowledge and expertise.
4. Learn From One Another
The different generations each have a wealth of knowledge and experience that they can share. The Boomers on your team, for example, can pass on the knowledge, information, useful contacts, and perspectives that they have developed during their years at work. In return, a Generation Y colleague can help them to come to grips with recent innovations, such as the latest developments in social media and viral marketing. Successful multi-generational teams identify, value and build on one another’s skills and experiences. This focus on individual strengths, rather than on generational differences, is a key part of thriving in the modern workplace.
5. Tailor Your Communication Style
The generations often have their preferred methods of communication. Silents and Boomers tend to use one-on-one, telephone or written communication, whereas Generations X and Y tend to prefer emails and texts. Generation Z generally likes the collaborative interaction of social media. Generations differ in the degree of formality they use, too. Older team members tend to be more formal, whereas their younger colleagues will more likely use colloquialisms, abbreviations and “emojis”. This is more suited to personal or less important messages or communications. Serious or important messages are probably not the best times to use smiley face emojis! Sticking rigidly to your own favored means and style of communication can alienate others, so, although it might not feel natural, try to tailor your communication to suit the recipient whenever it’s appropriate.
6. Don’t Overlook the Similarities
Focus on the things that unite you with colleagues of all generations, rather than dwelling on the differences. You might struggle at first to find similarities between yourself and older or younger team members. But however stark the differences might appear to be, there are more similarities than differences across the generations. After all, most people like to feel engaged with their work, to receive fair pay, to achieve, to build a better quality of life, to be happy and respected, and so on. Likewise, many of us share the same grumbles, such as feeling overworked and underpaid!
Multigenerational workplaces can host as many as five generations. Having people who were born between the 1920s and the 1990s work together creates the potential for creativity and innovation, but also for conflict and misunderstanding.
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