Don’t Ignore Generational Differences
March 25, 2022 | BY Simcha Felder , CPA, MBA
Today’s workforce may be the first ever to include five generations (Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z) working side by side. For many business leaders, managing multiple generations in the workplace presents unique challenges, but it also creates unique opportunities.
A generation is an age cohort whose members are born during the same period in history. Each generation grows up in a different context and experiences significant events at similar life stages. As a result, different generations may have different work expectations. If not addressed correctly, sometimes these generational differences can cause tensions in the workplace, and can hurt your organization’s productivity by limiting employee collaboration, creating emotional conflict, and lowering performance.
Sadly, many businesses do not take any steps to address intergenerational issues. Even when organizations do try and address them, the strategy has often been to encourage employees of different generations to focus on their similarities or deny the existence of any differences. But this is a huge, missed opportunity. Age-diverse teams can be incredibly valuable because they bring together employees with different but complementary skills, abilities, and networks. Age- diverse teams are known to be more productive and offer better decision-making, if managed effectively.
So how do business leaders embrace the challenges and benefits of a multigenerational workplace? The following steps may help bridge generational gaps and help create an intergenerational workforce that uses its age diversity to build something that no single generation could build on its own.
1. Identify and Acknowledge Differences.
The assumptions we make about generational groups (or any groups for that matter) can hold us back from understanding our coworkers’ true character, as well as the skills, strengths, and connections they have to offer. Having the awareness to recognize we are making these assumptions is the first step to combating them.
As an example, imagine you oversee a social media campaign. Which employees or coworkers would you choose to work on this campaign? Most of us would probably say our younger colleagues. Consciously, you likely believe you are choosing the most qualified and the most interested workers. Unconsciously, you may be giving in to deeply held assumptions that older people dislike technology or are uninterested in learning anything new.
2. Adjust your Assumptions.
Recognizing assumptions is important, but the next step is actively addressing them. Stereotypes often cause us to incorrectly attribute differences to a group, which causes tension for no real reason. Consider whether your assumptions align with the reality of the situation at hand, or whether you’ve been judging someone’s actions and attitudes based only on a stereotype. Try to understand why colleagues from different generations might approach a situation differently than you do.
A well-known example is an older coworker may get frustrated with their younger colleague, when, in the middle of a conversation about a difficult work project, the younger coworker starts using their cell phone. Of course, checking a phone mid-conversation might offend a lot of people, but, if the older employee can adjust their assumptions, they may realize that their younger coworker was just checking their phone to try and get information to help with the difficult work project.
3. Encourage Mutual Learning.
The key to truly getting the most out of intergenerational teams is that each employee must believe that they have something to learn from colleagues in all different age cohorts. The ultimate goal is to have mutual learning among every employee, with coworkers of all ages teaching and learning from one another in an ongoing loop. Mutual learning happens best when coworkers of different generations have good relationships with each other, and everyone is looking for opportunities to grow.
Businesses and organizations need to acknowledge that skill sets, motivations and values differ among different generations. Leaders need to view this diversity as a strength and encourage a culture where generations can work in harmony and learn from each other. Every generation has something to teach and something to learn.