Multi-Generational Management

August 20, 2008
A multi-generation workforce is great—more viewpoints and ideas to contribute towards innovation. But as great as it is, organizations are concerned about employee tension due to differing experiences, values, expectations, work habits, and communication styles. Luckily there are proven strategies for coping, and even thriving, with a multigenerational staff.

By now most employers know today’s workplace is multi-generational, and includes different values and work styles. The four generations are typically categorized as Traditionalists or Veterans (65 years and older); Baby Boomers (48 years and older); Generation X (28 years and older); and Millennials or Generation Y (who began to enter the work force in 1990). With employees having grown up in different times, experiencing different world events, and raised with different values and philosophies, clashes of perspectives, expectations, work habits, and communication styles are expected. But that's no reason the focus should be on the differences between the generations, rather than the commonalities.

Successful organizations develop strategies that result in the generations working effectively together, learning from one another, and showing mutual respect. They are talent smart—adaptable, innovative, and creative as they try to recruit new talent while retaining their present talent. What strategies can organizations and their leaders develop to emphasize commonalities among the generations and build a "we" culture? What can they do to keep their best talent, no matter their age, engaged and productive? Strategies need to address what the four generations value and want to experience in the workplace. At the same time, differences in these individuals’ work methods, tools, and procedures also need to be considered. With that in mind, here are five strategies that might help you:

Strategy One: Work and Life Balance

Work/life balance is the juggle of work, family, friends, re-energizing, and personal wellbeing. When employees experience a good balance between their work and personal lives, they feel the organization is well functioning and supportive. They feel they are working in a healthy environment, and want to remain. One element of work/life balance important to all generations is flexibility—how, where, or when they get their work done. But flexibility is viewed differently by each generation. According to authors Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, the mindsets for each generation are:
  • Traditionalists: "I've earned it." This is my time to spend with my family or think about retirement.
  • Boomers: "I want it." Now that my children are grown-up, I want to travel and peruse avocation interests, or have time to care for aging parents.
  • X'ers: "I deserve it." I want to choose how and where I do my work or spend my time. Give me space to make decisions.
  • Millenials: "I expect it." I want freedom— not to be tied to a desk. Thanks to technology I can work anytime, anywhere.
Flexibility can be provided in various ways to meet the lifestyles of the four generations, including by providing company blackberries and laptops, flextime, opportunities to work from home, and sabbaticals.

Strategy Two: Learning Opportunities and Career Development

All employees want to learn to do their job effectively and efficiently. And, except perhaps for those who have reached the top rung of their career ladder, they want training to advance to the next level. But organizations need to take into account generational learning differences in styles and experiences. A survey by Eric Lesser and Ray Rivera on changing workforce demographics reveals that trainers need to accommodate the different learning method preferences that exist between older and younger generations.

While traditionalists and boomers are more comfortable with conventional class-based or trainer-led learning methods, X'ers and Millennials prefer technology--based learning. Yet even these two generations are not alike in their approach to technology. X-ers prefer Web classes they can work on by themselves, while Millennials like working with others via blogs.

While all generations are interested in learning opportunities, they want different content and topics. They are in various places in their career development and movement, and consequently, need or desire different knowledge and skills. Employee survey and self-assessment results will give your HR staff clearer insights regarding curriculum development and delivery methods. This common interest also is an opportunity to bring the generations together to learn and grow from each other. Here's what they have to share:
  • Traditionalists: Have a significant knowledge base to pass on before retiring. They can teach the intangibles of a role, the realities of the workplace, and the advantages and disadvantages of leadership. HR can partner with senior staff to develop and facilitate seminars.
  • Boomers: As they plateau, their passion needs to be reengaged. As managers and bosses of X’ers and Millennials, they are in a position to act as coaches, and experience their staff’s enthusiasm and energy. With proper training, Boomers can work with younger staff to set career paths that are aligned with team and organizational goals. In a coaching role, first-line supervisors can help these generations become aware of career growth and advancement opportunities.
  • X'ers and Millennials: Once they settle into their position, they are ready to acquire new skills and experiences to determine their next moves. HR staff, in cooperation with company departments, can create opportunities for cross-functional positions, assignments in different locations, and short-term projects that place workers on senior-level teams. At the same time, they can be called on to bring older peers into the high tech world by sharing their knowledge of the latest technological products and services.

Strategy Three: Talent Management and Performance Appraisals

Fifty-four percent of senior executives cite as talent management barriers senior managers who do not spend enough time on talent management, according to a recent survey by McKinsey & Company, while 52 percent cite line managers who are not sufficiently committed to employee development. Managers who are effective, no matter their level, work with: a) new hires to envision their future with the organization, and b) establish staff to keep them engaged and motivated.

Managers play a key role establishing understanding and agreement among the generations by:
  • Setting an example of respect, tolerance, and appreciation of efforts and contributions made by all employees
  • Establishing a culture of trust and confidence by giving people freedom to achieve outcomes their own way
  • Managing different people differently, knowing not everyone has the same motivation for success or perspective of how to get the work done
  • Caring about the people who work for them, and stepping in when misunderstandings or clashes arise
  • Encouraging cooperation and a "team mentality"
One of the most critical responsibilities managers have is conducting performance appraisals. This can be a time when misunderstandings and disagreements readily happen and impact morale. What's more, young managers are increasingly responsible for older staffs, a situation ripe for resentment and condescension. An effective manager knows performance appraisals are a cornerstone of talent management that calls for careful planning, thoughtful discussion, and constructive comments. Done right, it benefits the individual, supervisor, and team.

A positive performance review process is a partnership between the manager and the employee that is employee-driven, adult-to-adult, creates "stakeholders," and results in a commitment to future career goals and work improvements. A partnership mentality implies collaboration for a common purpose. Elements of this type of evaluation system include:
  • Building consensus between the supervisor and employee
  • Holding more frequent informal check-in meetings to ensure everyone is on the same track and moving forward
  • Giving employees the initiative to create performance goals and learning objectives
  • Focusing on objectives and omitting biases and subjectivity
  • Evaluating actual performance outcomes, not individualized work styles and habits with the attitude of, "Would I have done the work in the same manner?"

Strategy Four: Two-Way Communications and Trust

A major difference between the generations is their communication styles and how they interact with other people. Traditionalists and boomers tend not to question or challenge authority or the status quo, while X’ers and Millennials have been taught to speak up and not just accept what they're told. How can clashes and misunderstanding be avoided? How can confidence, credibility, and reliability be established?

All employees, regardless of age, want to work with people who are honest and trustworthy. They want to feel everyone is "up front" regarding commitments and agreements. Open communication builds trust, which, in turn, builds loyalty. Leaders who develop consensus among the generations know no one has all the answers, and most importantly, that all groups contribute to the achievement of departmental goals and the organization’s success in the marketplace.

Organizations need to find innovative ways to quickly build trust among co-workers, supervisors, and facilitators, especially when involved in short-term projects or virtual teams. Promoting open collaborative communication is important when an organization needs older generations to stay engaged and younger generations to commit to the organization's culture and values.

Mentoring is one way to foster understanding and agreement among the generations. A study conducted by Jodi Davis, reveals that in 77 percent of companies, implementation of mentoring programs increased retention rates. Senior level executives bring their own unique organizational history and experiences to the relationship, and are ideal role models for X’ers and Millennials, who gain valuable knowledge about the organization and its "way of doing things." Mentoring allows generations to establish in-depth, meaningful relationships, creating an environment that's open and honest about employee views, feelings, and opinions.

Strategy Five: Recognition and Respect

Workers of all ages want to be recognized for their accomplishments. People want acknowledgement they feel has been earned and deserved from leaders, supervisors, and colleagues. However, different age groups define this differently:
  • Traditionalists: Feedback is not necessary, but they want to know they made a difference. This group wants reassurance their vast experiences are respected and their perseverance valued.
  • Boomers: Documented feedback on a yearly basis is fine. They want to know their contributions are noticed, and reflected in bonuses or cash awards.
  • X'ers: Feedback should be often and honest to let them know they are on the right track. Personal acknowledgements received from managers and senior executives can be as important as monetary rewards.
  • Millennials: They want immediate feedback that tells them what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong. They prefer quarterly bonuses to yearly ones.
Increasingly organizations are offering customized rewards programs to meet the changing expectations of employees. Note, though, that rewards won't act as a motivator unless they are individually tailored. Surveys can be conducted to learn what employees want as rewards and how they want to be recognized. In addition to financial compensation and time-off, requests can include: an award given in front of peers, a thank you note from a leader in the organization, acknowledgement of their employment anniversary date, project leadership, and/or cross-training opportunities.

Treating human capital as an asset is good for business as it creates a "talent point of view" throughout the organization. From top leadership to front-line supervisors, the emphasis should be on building a work environment where all employees are supported and nurtured to remain passionate, resilient, and competitive.

The attention given to multiple generations in the workplace should be on common experiences and shared expectations. Different is neither right nor wrong, just different.

Each individual's unique talents and contributions should be respected and valued.

Annabelle Reitman, Ed.D., is a Career Management Consultant and SME with Insala, a leading global talent management software provider. Among other published books and articles, she is the author of "Talent Retention," an Infoline Series for ASTD Press, 2007.

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