Generational Differences In The Workplace – Opportunity or Challenge?

by | Oct 14, 2020 | Longevity

There’s no doubt that our generational differences can make us stronger – if we simply work together. Creating a supportive workplace environment – across generations – can sometimes prove to be a difficult task.

Stereotyping is a Teamwork Killer! Research shows that humans are naturally hardwired to stereotype. A “glimpse” of a person is enough for our brains to create judgment and each of us is inherently part of a social subset that has some (perhaps latent) negative stereotype attached to our subconscious. At times this disposition proves to be quite prevalent in a multi-generational workplace environment. For instance, older employees are often preconceived to be slower workers who are hard set against change. They are thought to be passive learners and scared of technology. Younger employees are frequently labeled as lazy employees who don’t stay loyal to a company, and want to be constantly praised. It’s important to be aware of the dangerous consequences of these stereotypes. This type of natural inclination to adopt a “perception” based on perhaps marketing, group think or the media is often referred to as stereotype threat. According to the “fount of knowledge” wikipedia (and the plethora of sources provided within) stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people are (or feel themselves to be) at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group. Stereotype threat is purportedly a contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance. It can have detrimental effects on the performance of individuals belonging to negatively stereotyped subsets – especially in the workplace. Something to think about next time you “side-eye” one of your co-workers for no reason at all!

Understanding the Different Generations…From the surface it can seem difficult for business leaders and managers to get the four generations, who grew up in completely different environments, to collaborate and communicate effectively together. But it isn’t an impossible task to foster cohesion among what may seem like very fragmented groups. The first step to avoid commotion and collision between multigenerational employees, and to get the whole staff working together, is to better understand what shaped them to be who they are in the first place. Taking the time to learn what shapes your employees within each generation can help you identify their underlying values, needs, attitudes and motivational buttons. With this insight you will be able to implement strategies that connect you to the core values of each of the cohorts and hopefully avoid misunderstandings across generations.

  • The Silent Generation: They are the members of the Veteran generation who survived the Great Depression and World War II. They are known for staying quiet, laying low and working hard, hence the moniker “Silent” generation. They are the children of war who grew up during lean times. Silents value hard work and sacrifice and have always considered any promising opportunities a privilege. They are loyal to their employers and respect authority. Silents believe respect, wealth, status and reward should be earned not just given (or a given).
  • Baby Boomers: This generation grew up in an era that was defined by events like the Vietnam War, Women’s Liberation Movement, Civil Rights Movement and Space exploration. Boomers value relationships and strong interpersonal skills because they grew up without technology (translated as: they actually had “direct eye contact” with other humans on a regular basis). The majority of baby boomers are adept at tech now, but research suggests they prefer to use technology to stay productive rather than for staying connected. This generation believes in working long hours, and essentially created “Corporate America”, and the culture of face-to-face meetings in the workplace.
  • Generation X: This group is also known as the “sandwich generation” because they are right in the middle of two prominent generations – The Baby Boomers and the Generation Y. Whereas Baby Boomers are defined as workaholics, Generation X are more focused on creating a work-life balance. Data supports the concept that is this is the era where the “latch key kid”  moniker was established (the term refers to a child who is at home without adult supervision for some part of the day, especially after school until a parent returns from work) which has enhance their level of confidence and allowed them to feel more secure and independent. GenXer’s value career security more than job security, and like being self reliant. Being entrepreneurial is a side-effect of this need to be dependent on no one except themselves.
  • Generation Y: This generation is predominantly defined by technology. They look forward to, and fully embrace, innovation. They prefer communicating through text and emails rather than face-to-face interactions, which tends to hurt their interpersonal skills (especially when they are attempting to co-exist with older co-workers). They are changing the traditional structure of corporate America. Members of the GenY group are confident and aren’t afraid of questioning their authorities and they are always seeking new challenges.

Generational Differences in Workplace: Robert Half Management Resources looked at the how various generations differ in the workplace and the results aren’t earth shattering – they are fairly predictable based on the various cohorts characteristics (or are those actually stereotypes that we have adopted?). The participants, including more than 2,200 CFOs, were asked the question – “In which one of the following areas do you see the greatest differences among your company’s employees who are from different generations?”  

Their answers….

  • Communication skills- 30%
  • Adapting to change- 26%
  • Technical Skills- 23%
  • Cross-departmental collaboration- 14%
  • 7% of the respondents mentioned seeing no difference

Some context….

  • Communication Skills: Baby Boomers normally prefer “in-person” interactions and are more “reserved” than their counterparts; Generation Y prefer a collaborative means of communication over an authoritative style. Y are more receptive to coaching, and crave feedback 50% more than other employees.
  • Change Adoption: Generation X and Y look at change as a “vehicle to new opportunities.” Although the research didn’t mention Baby Boomer’s attitude in this area, other studies have shown that they are more resistant to organizational change. Since Baby Boomers value communication, one of the ways to increase their readiness to change is to verbally talk them through the situation and make sure they understand why the change is necessary.
  • Technical Skills: As expected, the survey showed that Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers prefer learning via traditional methods, while millennials prefer collaborative or tech-driven options. The younger workforce grew up with tech as their third appendage, so this result is very much expected.
  • Motivations: The silent generation is mostly driven by hard work, job titles and salary. Since Baby boomers are very ambitious and goal driven, they are highly motivated by promotions, increased responsibility and recognition. Gen X’ers like doing their own thing, and are heavily influenced by flexible schedules and monetary rewards like bonuses and stock options. The millenials love stability, structure and team work. They also find a lot of value in continuing education and ongoing feedback from their supervisors.
  • Feeling Respected: Millennials – just like the older generation – want to be respected. It should be noted that the way each generation speaks the language of feeling valued is different. Older workers like their opinions to be given more weight because they’ve more experience. The younger workers want to feel listened to even if it isn’t implemented. Another interesting point to address is that many older workers may not like when equal respect is shown to everyone, especially to an employee with less experience or a lower title.

How to Make Cross-Generational Leadership Work
Grappling the friction between four generations of employees in the same workplace might seem overwhelming, but once you understand the expectations of each of these generations from their work, it becomes easier to manage and help them align with one another better.

5 Strategies to Create an “Employee- Friendly” Cross-Generational Workplace 

  • Encourage mentoring: Knowledge comes with experience, and due to the fact older workers and younger workers seem to be adept at different things the learning can be mutual. For instance, millennials may be tech savvy but mature employees hold valuable knowledge around best of practice as it relates to interpersonal skills. Both can benefit from on another in the realm of thoughtful communication skills! Reciprocal mentoring, a relationship structure that harnesses the power of mentoring into a mutually beneficial relationship where each participant takes turns being the mentor and the mentee (regardless of age!), is becoming the norm in successful organizations.
  • Give an option to work offsite: Avoid micromanaging and offer your employees options to telecommute or work offsite. Since different generations have their own way of getting the job done, businesses should focus more on the end result rather than how their employees are getting there. Gen X and Y often report that they are more efficient when working from a coffee shop or a rented co-working space because they value flexibility. Integrating flexible working offsite options for at least a day or two a week will ensure that everyone on your team feels acknowledged and accommodated.
  • Offer different learning styles: Traditionalists (Silents) learn their best in a “command-control” structure like lectures. Baby boomers prefer in-class set up with PowerPoint presentations, followed by a discussion and feedback session. Generation X love learning through self-directed programs where they can complete a course at their own pace, and Generation Y learn their best in hyper-personalized training course that are also self-directed. Since the younger generation grew up with tech, they like their information available to them “on-demand.” HR representatives and learning and development teams within an organization should do their best to accommodate each of these four learning styles.
  • Encourage engagement among employees: Every employee likes their opinions to be valued and heard! There is no doubt that creating a work culture that inspires conversation will enhance employee performance. Younger employees, especially, like working in a supportive environment and aren’t afraid of changing jobs if they can find a workplace that will better allow them to have a voice. Encouraging engagement, thus, will hopefully be one feature that keeps your employee turnover rate low, and allows employees will feel more positive about sharing innovative/disruptive ideas. In a space where everyone feels heard, employees are more prone to make better decisions and give their 100%.
  • Tailor communication to each generation: The preferred communication style varies greatly according to ones generation. Younger employees prefer digital communication, with group instant message (IM) like SLACK being their “voice” of choice. Older employees prefer in person, one-on-one communication, or even phone conversations (YES phone!!!!). Generation X, like Gen Y, like feedback, and they tend to want everyone to be treated equally, so talk to them directly about their performance regardless of their age cohort (so don’t dance around the feedback by using online platforms as a shield).

Closing generational gaps in the workforce starts with learning about your employees needs and values. There is strength to be gained from a generationally diverse workforce, as a whole, they have stronger (and varied) cognitive problem-solving skills which are necessary to face the challenges arising from the disruptive and unpredictable marketplace of today!

To reach Dr. Abramson please contact us via email or call us at (877) 895-3680. We look forward out hearing from you….