Successfully Navigating a Multi-Generational Workforce
Both the most challenging and beneficial aspect of working with others is that people are different. People have different worldviews, experiences, skills, strengths, weaknesses, values, knowledge, likes, dislikes, and ideas.
These differences are beneficial – and, in fact, essential – because they introduce tension (a good thing) and create a more holistic perspective. Like a tapestry with many different threads, our differences allow us to complement one another to create rich and vibrant outcomes.
But our differences can also be challenging because they introduce friction. One person is a spender, while another is a saver. One wants to dream big, and another wants to think about operational implications. One likes variety, and another values consistency. The list goes on.
One area in which differences show up in the workplace is when working with people from different generations. The wide range of age groups currently present in the workforce has driven many people to ask how they can succeed in a multi-generational work environment. Let’s dive in.
A pitfall when discussing how to manage or participate in a multi-generational workforce is to rely on stereotypes to drive the discussion. While there is value in understanding key distinctions of the different generations, relying on that approach leaves room for generalization, bias, and assumption.
For example, a recent study by McKinsey and Company found that many generational stereotypes regarding work preferences did not show up in the data. In fact, there were more similarities than differences in what employees across age groups wanted from their work experience.
A different approach when considering the question of how to lead a multi-generational workforce or how to team with people from different generations is to focus less on which generation the person is from and more on the person themselves.
Rather than asking, “How do I work well with people from different generations?” Ask instead, “How do I leverage the benefits and overcome the challenges of working with a diverse group of people who don’t all think and act like me?”
Here are a few ideas:
1. FOCUS ON THE INDIVIDUAL.
The year in which someone was born is only one factor in who they become, alongside many other things that shape a person’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. So, treat each person as an individual, learn what makes him or her unique, and engage generational diversity the same way you would diversity in gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, life experience, or any other factor that impacts how someone sees the world around them.
2. GET COMFORTABLE WITH TENSION.
In my experience, while we often laud the value of diversity, we spend more time bemoaning the challenges of our differences than we do reaping the benefits. In theory, different seems good, but in practice, different is hard and it’s natural to be tempted by the allure of how easy things would be if everyone just saw things through our eyes.
To effectively leverage multi-generational teams, or teams with any kind of diversity, we must get comfortable with conflict. Disagreement is an inevitable outcome of diversity, and it is also the platform for creating great things. It is easy to confuse “healthy” with “easy” but that isn’t the case. Great outcomes almost always require hard work.
3. BE CURIOUS.
Approach different generations with a sense of curiosity and an open mind. One of the best ways to learn what someone thinks, desires, or values is to simply ask. You could certainly ask questions related specifically to generational differences such as, “In what ways has the generation in which you were born impacted you?” or “How do you see generational influences manifesting in the way you approach the workplace?” But general curiosity can provide information on all sorts of topics that impact interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
Here are some sample questions to get you started:
- “What types of behaviors build trust with you?”
- “What are some of the things you most appreciate in a supervisor?”
- “What are some of the most fulfilling aspects of your role?”
- “What are one or two of the biggest challenges you are currently facing?”
- “What is your natural response to change?”
- “What do you look for in a teammate?”
If you are wondering what is important to the 22-year-old on your team, start by asking him or her rather than searching online for “what is most important to Gen Z?”
4. LEVERAGE DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES.
One of the best parts of diversity on a team is that it introduces new perspectives, and generational diversity is no exception. Everything we experience in life, and all the things that make us each unique, including the year in which we were born, create a lens through which we view the world. Try as we might to see things objectively, we can’t.
What we can do is join with others who are looking through a different lens and viewing things from a different vantage point. These different perspectives are an asset because they complete the picture and fill in the gaps. Rather than getting frustrated when others don’t see things the way you do, be thankful that you are not stuck with only your own limited perspective!
5. FOCUS ON ADDING VALUE.
It is easy and natural to focus on “me.” My needs, my desires, my expectations, my preferences, my plans, my priorities. Often, we do this without even meaning to; it just comes naturally. It takes intentional effort to look outside ourselves toward the needs and interests of another person or group.
When we focus on adding value, we ask the question, “What could I do right now that would be most helpful? What could I do in this conversation? What could I do in this meeting? What could I do in this relationship with someone who was born in a different generation?”
It is not wrong to be attentive to our own needs. In fact, sometimes, the best way we can add value to a relationship is to understand our own needs and to communicate them clearly.
But when two people approach one another primarily trying to have their own needs met, the interaction is closed from the start. A focus on adding value opens the way for appreciating the contributions of others and creating better outcomes together.
As you engage with others in the workplace, remember that each person is unique, regardless of the generation in which they were born. Be curious, open yourself to different perspectives, focus on adding value, and work toward being comfortable with tension. You and your team will be better for your efforts!