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Working with a multigenerational workforce

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How to overcome the challenge of managing employees from different generations

In the past, the workforce was fairly homogenous: People got a job, stayed at it for most of their lives, progressed through the company, worked until retirement age and then left to make room for younger workers. In today’s workforce, however, places of business have four generations working together, all with different wants and needs, posing unique challenges for employers.

Many of today’s employers are struggling to bridge these generational gaps and to bring out the best in each employee to build a cohesive, collaborative workforce that is working toward the same end.

“Employers must understand what characteristics and strengths each generation brings to the workplace and what events played a part in shaping their lives if they are to realize their full potential,” says Lacy Robinson, senior professional development trainer at Aurora Casket Co. in Aurora, Ind.

Generational characteristics

Each of the four generations has specific views toward leadership, work and values, says Tim Elmore, founder and president of the international nonprofit organization Growing Leaders, which helps schools, universities and civic groups prepare the leaders of tomorrow.

  • Traditionalists – born between 1922 and 1943 – generally place their careers as a central focus in their lives. They are typically very loyal and respect those in leadership roles, and have an extremely strong work ethic.
  • Boomers – born between 1944 and 1964 – are typically very competitive and considered workaholics. In general, they have great work ethic and very high expectations, and examine all angles of an issue before making decisions.
  • Gen Xers – born between 1966 and 1981 – typically desire a greater work/life balance than their predecessors and place less emphasis on working overtime to climb the corporate ladder. They focus on creating relationships at work.
  • Millennials – born between 1982 and 1999 – generally view their careers as something to help them serve others and gain skills, but they often maintain a shop-around mindset. They communicate more through technology and less through face-to-face contact.

“This melting pot of personalities has the potential to cause conflict, especially in the collaborative setting of the workplace,” Elmore says. “But with insight, empathy and effort, these differences can transform individuals into team-builders who work effectively together.”

Considerations for specific generations

Because traditionalists respect authority and value proficiency, the key to managing them is recognizing the value of their experiences and expertise.

“Ask for their advice and insight,” Elmore says. “Also consider mutual mentoring opportunities in which a younger employee might be able to mentor the traditionalist in social media marketing techniques, and the older person could offer advice on strategic planning.”

Mature, organized boomers are also eager to put their experience to work. This group generally desires to work on projects that will capitalize on their industry and product knowledge and on their familiarity with diverse customer bases, says Lynn Berger, a licensed mental health counselor, professional certified coach and master career counselor.

Gen X, however, watched its boomer parents place their careers first and typically doesn’t want to commit as heavily to their jobs. When working with this group, it’s important to emphasize the relationship first.

“Foster a sense of community with them and acknowledge that they have a life outside of work and want to live it,” Elmore says. “No matter your age, approaching Gen Xers through the lens of a relationship — not a task or authority — will make them far more receptive and loyal.”

Finally, because millennials are confident, connected, open to change and keenly adept and aware of their technological skills, companies need to create ample opportunities for them by providing the chance for them to use their technological skills and be involved in projects that are interesting and exciting, Berger says.

Managing multiple generations together

Employers should research and study the different generations through webinars, workshops, blogs and books, Robinson says. Because she works in the funeral industry, she often works with clients from multiple generations and says it’s important to understand each.

“Commit not only to knowing the facts and characteristics but aim to reach a level of understanding that truly helps you be flexible and better communicate with employees in the manner in which they need,” she says. “Further, while this information is excellent for leaders and managers of an organization, it is also important to share it with staff members.”

Robinson recommends speaking with each employee to discover his or her full potential and gain an understanding of how each works.

Questions to ask include:

  • How do you like to be rewarded?
  • How do you feel about rules and regulations?
  • When does a person earn your respect?
  • How do you feel about fun at work?

Robinson also recommends facilitating generational awareness sessions for all employees to increase their understanding of each other. In addition to these sessions, she suggests partnering employees from different generations to encourage cooperation.

“Working closely together will allow each person to learn the specific strengths of an individual, resulting in appreciation for a person’s strengths rather than a focus on perceived weaknesses, which are really miscommunications resulting from a generation gap,” Robinson says.