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April 07, 2016 | Lindsay Calvert
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How to Manage Generational Differences in the Workplace

Tips to reduce conflict and facilitate communication among four generations of workers

How to Manage Generational Differences in the Workplace

Millennials are always on their phones and never pay attention. Baby boomers don’t know how to adapt to new technology. Sound familiar? Generational tension and lack of understanding can cause phrases like these to float around the workplace.  

For the first time, four different generations are working together side-by-side.  Supervisors are managing people with an age difference ranging up to 40 years. Conflict and tension naturally arise when people with such differing backgrounds work together. One in three people waste up to five hours a week on unaddressed conflicts between co-workers of different generations, according to a 2014 Association for Talent Development (ATD) study authored by consultants Joseph Greeny and David Maxfield. 

Conflict doesn’t have to take center stage. Each generation brings unique attitudes, experiences, expectations and motivational buttons to the table. Leaders can either capitalize on these differences or let them divide the group.

How do you skillfully manage different age groups with widely different expectations and help them recognize their own unique set of skills they bring to the table?

Generations at a glance 

People are more often influenced by their experiences and peers than their parents. The events of early childhood days and economic wellbeing shape individuals. 

Each generation is plagued with  stereotypes that often come from the time period they grew up. Having a better understanding of significant life events for each generation is a first step to bridging the workplace divide. 

Traditionals (Before 1946)

The traditional generation is typically characterized by two groups — the GI Generation (1900 to 1924) and the Silent Generation (1924 to 1946). The GI Generation is known as the Greatest Generation with a get-it-done attitude stemming from their service and sacrifice in World War II.  The Silent Generation followed with a goal to refine the more peaceful world that the previous generation fought hard to form.  Many were appointed to serve and lead the country during this volatile time period. Allegiance to their country, building a legacy, and respect for authority top their workplace values. 

Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Baby boomers are part of the unusual spike in birth rates during the mid-century. They grew up during an economic boom that sustained through 1968 affording them the luxury of more money, possessions and education than their parents. Baby boomers have an optimistic view of life and gain a lot of personal fulfillment in their workplace achievements. They place high value on career achievement and personal sacrifice for job. Until recently, baby boomers were the largest generation in the workplace.  

Generation X (1965-1979) 

Generation X experienced the Cold War and the Reagan era during their childhood.  During their time period as America’s youth, the media labeled them as lazy, overeducated and underachieving misfits. Having experienced multiply recessions, they are less likely to retire with a company they’ve been with for multiple decades. Rather, they’re more loyal to their skillset and desire mobile experience that build skills that can transfer to multiple contexts.  

Millenials (1980-2000)

Millenials’ world views have been shaped by growing up in a time period of terrorist attacks and the most recent recession. They might be the most overanalyzed generation to date. Information and research on millennial traits contradict each other. The most consistent trait in this group is that they are the most technology-savvy and connected generation. These digital natives incorporate technology in every aspect of their daily lives.

What makes generations unique 

How many times growing up do mothers say to their children, “Treat others like you want to be treated”? 

While this may work in general when interacting with other human beings day to day — as a manager it can cause tension in the workplace and decrease productivity. 

The secret to working with groups of different generations is to appeal to their preferred methods of receiving feedback and their communication and working styles. 

1. Decision making and receiving feedback 

Managing a wide range of ages demands you to adjust your feedback methods based on the person. Baby boomers are used to receiving feedback in the formal performance review that occurs once a year. “No news is good news.” Decisions are made in a hierarchical manner from the top down.  

Growing up in a digital era with information at their fingertips, Generation X and Millenials expect and appreciate frequent and in-time feedback. This can be in a positive form to verify their good work or offer suggestions for improvement next time. 

2. Views of technology and communication styles 

Traditionals and baby boomers are used to formality in several aspects of work — communication and technology aren’t any different. While most have adapted new forms of informal communication, they might be skeptical of its place at work. Generation X and Millenials have been communicating via technology their entire lives. It’s no surprise that they view social networks and other less formal styles of communication a natural fit in the workplace. 

3. Views on work-life balance

Traditionals grew up respecting the corporate chain of command. Baby boomers strive for team consensus. Loyalty and achievement describe two major themes of the traditional and baby boomer generations. Personal sacrifice for career achievement and the company or the organization are the norm. 

The younger generation is more loyal to their skill than they are to their employer. They value work life balance and believe productivity matters more than time spent working. Autonomy or freedom to complete task how they want, when they want and by what means they want is important. They are known for asking “why.” 

Three steps to bridge the generation gap 

1. Be aware of preferred work styles — Baby boomers and millennials are more alike than different in that they are used to structure in the workplace and working in teams. Millenials will thrive if you provide them with coaching and challenges along the way. Baby boomers value face-to-face meetings to ask for direction when needed. 

2. Focus on the positive — What differences can provide value to your team? A birth year doesn’t define or limit someone to strengths and weaknesses. The best way to learn about your individual team members is to ask. You might find understanding in why they act the way they do. Instead of labeling those differences as a negative, find ways to capitalize on them. Look for people you can pair up together to compliment one another’s strengths. 

3. Identify the most successful feedback techniques — The best way to learn how employees like feedback is to ask. A traditional or baby boomer might prefer in-time feedback similar to the majority of Millennials, just as a Millennial might perform better with more structured feedback. 

It is unrealistic to expect a manager to change all daily operations to fit the need of every individual employee. However, it is realistic to expect a manager and employees to ask about each generation to learn small ways to improve working relationships that benefit both parties. 

Understanding generational differences is not labeling people and mentally filing them into a stereotype category. The focus should be on creating a workplace culture of understanding and respect. That culture starts with open conversation and dialogue to bridge the gap. A manager’s role is to help the team see beyond the labels. 

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