When most people think of diversity, they tend to think of things such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and culture. However, another aspect of diversity that almost every organization has, but many overlook, is generational diversity. According to the Boston College Center on Aging & Work, most organizations are still in the very early stages of formulating an organizational response to the demographic changes within their workforce. The Center’s National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development (a study of 578 organizations) found that 25.8% of the employers stated that their organizations had not analyzed the age demographics of their workforces at all and only 12.0% felt that their organizations had pursued this type of analysis to a great extent.
Although many organizations have not analyzed this data, many are starting to take notice. The literature shows that these generational differences in work values influence the requirements for all aspects of management: from recruitment, to training and development; to career development, to working arrangements and leadership styles.
These differences also have the potential to cause serious conflict within the workplace. Nearly 60% of HR professionals in larger organizations witness generational clashes in the workplace. While this number drops to roughly 32% in smaller and medium sized firms, these conflicts still seem to be a significant problem.
Having multiple generations in the workplace is nothing new. However, several key differences in today’s workplace exacerbate the challenge. First of all, in the past, generations were usually separated from each by organizational hierarchy. Older workers tended to be in upper management while middle-aged employees tended to be in middle management. The younger workers were everywhere else and their interactions were limited to their peers and immediate supervisor. However, as organizations strive to become more meritocratic with promotions, older staff can suddenly discover that their years of service no longer guarantee advancement. As the workplace becomes more technically oriented, the fact that youngers workers are more likely to be more comfortable with technology, has allowed them to overtake older candidates in jobs where understanding of such things helps.
This growing trend of older workers reporting to younger managers raises the question of how to keep the older workers motivated. When working under a younger supervisor, older subordinates are constantly reminded that they have failed to keep pace. Another source of conflict is the middle-aged workers who find themselves sandwiched between an older workforce that is refusing to or delaying retirement and a younger workforce that are treated far better than they ever were.
Managing the Generational Effect
Organizations can do several things to help manage the generational effect.
Leadership and Management Style
Studies have shown that the biggest differences in the world views of the generations are differing attitudes toward leadership and authority. These attitudes manifested themselves in accepting, questioning, or even rebelling, against traditional view-points and orders handed down from above. This finding stresses the importance of creating more flexible leadership and management approaches in order to address issues related to inclusiveness and alignment of varying worker values. A key to bridging the generation gap is the ability of leaders to create a supportive work environment for an increasingly diverse population of workers.
As a general rule, management styles preferences vary between generations. One example is Baby Boomers and Gen Xers desire for a greater level of autonomy in their roles; they do not like to be micromanaged. On the other hand, Millennials tend to desire more constructive feedback and praise than earlier generations. More than any other generation, Millennials expect their leaders to be accessible in person, through email and text messages, and ideally through social media channels.
Veterans and Baby Boomers prefer a hierarchical structure. Gen Xers prefer to work alone, and Millennials desire achievement by pulling together as a team. Baby Boomers demand consensus and Gen Xers need to be led by competence. Understanding how members on a diverse team may prefer to be led and have experience being supervised and the current management style chosen to accomplish organizational, team and individual goals needs to be communicated.
Coaching, Mentoring, and Training
The ability of an organizations management to coach to generational differences and promote generational similarities as strengths is another key to preventing generational impacts. Providing forums that are facilitated by management trained to coach employees to have provocative conversations that bring to light common points of interest, needs and goals between generations, and solutions for overcoming the differences as a team can be one of the first steps to understand how an organization is fairing today. Another benefit of such forums is that the assumptions, myths, and stereotypes need to be discussed.
The most effective mentoring programs are designed upon the unique makeup of teams, departments and other characteristics in the organization. Mentoring to strengthen generational impacts is helpful to create one-to-one relationships to increase the level of understanding and provide learning and growth for both the mentor and mentee. An example of an effective mentoring relationship would be between a Baby Boomer and a Millennial where the Baby Boomer acknowledges the Millennials need for personalizing work. Through conversation the Baby Boomer could determine key aspects of the Millennials role that was important to them and associate the significance of their role to the organization. This interaction helps make the Millennials role meaningful and inspires performance. Millennials need for a supportive work environment can be fostered by other generations and therefore increase job satisfaction. Another example of a benefit of cross-generational mentoring relationships is for new employees to understand the values and behaviors of the organization and individuals. A new employee being supported by a “veteran” member of the organization can increase employee retention when conflict and other stressful work situations arise. Other benefits include an informal way for younger workers to seek the experience older workers can provide while the older workers can appreciate the fresh perspective the younger workers bring.
Decision makers need to ensure training and education of leadership and supervisory roles, and in some cases the entire workforce, about the implications of generational diversity.
In addition to training and sharing information about generational differences, training programs can be created that support the unique skills offered by generations. A stereotypical example would be where Millennials provide training, a “lunch and learn”, or information session to other workers to increase their understanding of technology or how Facebook is supporting the company’s marketing efforts, or how an update to software will increase productivity.
The need for this type of training is becoming more important. Currently, Baby Boomers are retiring in larger numbers. The window for skills transfer is becoming smaller. Ensuring that training program allow for different learning styles will be crucial to effective skills transfer in the time allowed. Understanding the learning style differences between generations is required. For example, Boomers tend to favor more traditional methods such as classroom and textbook learning, while Gen Xers and Millennials may prefer more interactive learning methods. The learning style of Millennials has been described as more resembling Nintendo than logic. Losing is the fastest way to mastering a game because losing represents learning. This trial-and-error approach to solving problems can contrast with previous generations’ more logical approach.
Understanding and acting on communication style preferences between generations is another area that can have significant impact due to the fact that individuals in an organization are constantly communicating. Even when employees are not speaking or emailing they can be communicating other messages, such as “I do not need anything right now”, “I feel everything is fine”. Baby Boomers traditionally prefer face to face communicating or by phone. In contrast, a long-winded meeting or speech by a Baby Boomer can be frustrating for Millennials who have short attention spans and little tolerance for delays. Baby Boomers prefer formal and documented feedback such as those offered by many performance appraisal systems. Gen Xers prefer timely and direct feedback similar to Millennials who also prefer an open connection to their manager. In a cross-generational team or department, effective communication will include multiple channels of communication, such as texts, emails, podcasts, staff meetings and round-table discussions. Offering multiple channels ensures generations are not alienated and increases the likelihood that messages are not just received, but also receives the desired response. It is often wise to ensure the professionalism of communication is appropriate to the professionalism of the organization and delivered in such a manner to fit the communication style that the organization supports. Doing so links the communication style with the culture of the organization and is therefore generally more accepted and valued by employees. The best approach is the unique approach. Communicating with individuals in the organization in the way that best meets their unique style is key. Noticing that a team member calls you or stops by your office is an indicator to their communication preferences. Using their preferred communication style increases communication effectiveness. It can also be used as a tool to shape or modify behavior and lead an employee to become comfortable with your preferred communicate style or the one that best fits the needs of the organization.
Flexible work arrangements. Flexible work arrangements are becoming more popular within organizations. The Society for Human Resource Management found that 57% of organizations offer flexible work arrangements to their employees. These arrangements may include full- or part-time telecommuting, flexible scheduling or compressed workweeks. That number is up from 53% in 2012.
Flexible work arrangements should be designed to accommodate the personal needs of employees. Baby Boomers may be looking to pare back on hours as they near retirement and may be willing to take a cut in pay to do so. Many Boomers may also prefer a flexible schedule to care for a sick or elderly parent. Gen Xers may need time off to attend a child’s school or sporting even or to work on outside projects that have special meaning to them. Millennials may want a schedule that allows them to pursue an advanced degree or work outside of the office.
Career Advancement. In companies where there may not be many options to advance, you can attract and retain Millennials with a career web instead of a career ladder. The career web will provide them with more opportunities to be challenged, learn, and grow.
Job Redesign. In manufacturing environments especially, the performance requirements of the job that are impacted by age such as strength and endurance can be offset with job redesign and productivity tools that minimize the strain on older workers.
As the demographics of the workforce change with respect to age, understanding generational diversity within the organization has increased in importance. Across the generations, people demonstrate varying attitudes, values and working styles. Although four different generations in the workforce can present leadership challenges, the diversity can also add richness and strength. If employees are valued and organizations and leaders effectively manage their age-diverse workforce, companies will enjoy a competitive edge.
By Ben Cheeks, with the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership