Look around your organization and you’ll notice an interesting phenomenon – four different generations of employees sharing the workplace. This comes at a critical time as older employees are leaving the workforce and young talent is in short supply due to demographics and the effects of outmigration. Although individuals from different generations can work well together and create value for your business, differences in perceptions and attitudes can cause tension and negatively impact organizational effectiveness. The ability of your leaders to bridge the generation gap will have a significant impact on the performance of your organization in the coming years.
Generational challenges can manifest themselves in many ways. For example, you may experience low levels of engagement among your staff, particularly younger hires, or your leaders may complain that younger employees are “not respectful of authority” or do not “work hard.” When recruiting new talent, your leaders many have difficulty finding candidates who will fit into roles as they are currently defined. Resolving challenges such as these starts by looking at the root cause – the very unique perspectives and attributes each generation brings to your workplace.
Ongoing research has resulted in invaluable insights for understanding and accommodating these four generations, and their different perspectives, beliefs and needs:
- Veteran – This generation came of age during the depression and WWII when jobs were scarce and survival was the goal. Veteran or Mature workers value rationality, pragmatism, a strong work ethic and authoritarian leadership. They also seek work that is fulfilling and matches their moral values.
- Baby Boomers – The largest group in the workforce today grew up in the post-WWII economic boom when opportunity lay ahead for anyone who wanted to grab it. Boomers have a sense of optimism and a belief you can have it all if you work hard enough. They are participative leaders who expect hard work and dedication from subordinates.
- Gen X – This generation is highly educated, but entered a tight labour market in an era of economic recessions and corporate downsizing. As a result, Xers became entrepreneurial, skeptical of employers and generally unwilling to pay their dues or sacrifice their lives for their careers. They expect work to be interesting and stimulating.
- Millennials – Raised with a strong sense of self-worth, Millennials or Generation Y are the newest and fastest-growing segment in the workplace. They expect frequent feedback, a chance to make an immediate impact and opportunities for advancement. They are uncomfortable with formalities, eager to find better ways to do things and able to multitask.
Obviously not every individual in a particular generation will share the same values and attributes. But it is easy to see how each generation’s experiences can lead to their having different ideas when it comes to loyalty, respect, work ethic and work-life balance. These different concepts often result in judgments and misunderstandings among the generations as each projects its values on the other. This can drive a wedge between your employees, making it difficult to execute your business strategies.
Although we are experiencing four generations in the same workplace for the first time, workplaces have been effectively adapting to employee diversity for many years. In fact, our experience shows that those organizations that apply their lessons learned in accommodating different genders or cultures in the workplace to issues of generational diversity effectively encourage understanding between, and find the shared core values, of all four generations.
Resolving and preventing generational conflicts does not require any significant investments, just a change in perspective. Employers of Choice have a clear idea of the culture and the talent they need to be successful. They understand that diversity of thought, competencies and perspectives has real business value that leads to better decision-making, greater innovation and new opportunities for growth. For example, leading organizations see the power in having the Millennial technology savvy combined with the Veteran worker’s rational approach to assessing options as bringing the right combination of strengths to a business productivity problem. To achieve this business value, these organizations have developed the capacity to capitalize on generational differences and have created the flexibility to accommodate this diversity.
Changing perceptions in your organization, like any change initiative, works best when there is visible and sustained support from the organization’s leadership. Information sessions and sensitivity training can be useful techniques to encourage the discussion and interaction that leads to increased awareness and understanding of the issue. For example, provide an overview of the different values and attributes of each generation as well as specific recommendations for individuals in management roles. Consider professional development or coaching for leaders who resist or experience difficulty in adapting their management style to meet the challenge.
Encouraging and building one-on-one relationships through mentoring is another effective way to enhance intergenerational understanding in the workplace. Mentoring conversations between Boomers and Millennials can help reveal, for example, the similarities and differences in how they define respect in the work place. While both individuals place a high value on being respected, Boomers feel respected when others defer to their opinions while Millennials feel respect when other listen to their opinions. Fostering this greater understanding will not only reduce the risk of conflict, it will result in skills and knowledge transfer across each generation, creating benefits for your employees and your organization as a whole.
Perhaps the most effective way to manage generational challenges is the simplest – encourage communication throughout your organization. Find opportunities where employees can share their values and needs with you, and with each other. More connections mean greater awareness, acceptance and an improved ability to work together as a team in achieving your business goals. You also put your organization on the path to being able to leverage the unique strengths that each generation has to offer.
Anna Stuart is a Partner at Robertson Surrette, Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, Atlantic Canada’s leading integrated human capital solutions provider. Throughout her 20-year career, Anna has provided recruitment, strategic and operational advisory services to government, industry and family business throughout Atlantic Canada.
Dr. Sean Lyons is a Professor in the Department of Business at the University of Guelph. His research focus is generational value differences and their impact on workplace dynamics.