Managing the Benefits and Challenges of the Multi-Generational Workforce

Managing the Benefits and Challenges of the Multi-Generational Workforce
Human Resources

The increased diversity in Ontario workplaces, the benefits and challenges that diversity presents to organizations, and initiatives to increase awareness and make our workplaces more inclusive have been an important focus of Canadian businesses and their human resource professionals over the past several decades.

Continuing to refine our definition of diversity in the workplace requires going beyond consideration of the more familiar differences such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or culture. It means considering all the features that make people dissimilar, and therefore unique. Defining differences in this broader context assists us in assessing the complex dynamics of today’s workplace, the interplay of individual personalities, and the behaviours and expectations of co-workers and managers.

A person’s background and circumstances influences the way that person approaches their job and inevitably affects their work style, work ethic, and workplace relationships. One of the ways we are “different’ is the generation we grew up in. During our developmental years, the world events and conditions that we experience shape our overall worldview for both our personal life and our work life. These experiences help to define our values, career goals, motivators, perception of work, and views on work-life balance. In turn, these values, goals, and motivators impact our behaviours and interactions in the workplace.

In my practice, as a conflict management consultant, I am invited in to a variety of workplaces to conduct a mediation between colleagues, assess a toxic work environment, investigate complaints alleging harassment and/or discrimination, or provide coaching, training, or facilitation as a restorative measure. I find that many times interpersonal workplace conflict is labelled as “they have a personality clash,” “he has no work ethic,” or “these young people have no respect for authority or experience.” The root of the conflict may, in some cases, be people struggling with different perceptions and expectations of each other, arising out of generational differences. With three to five generations working alongside each other in most workplaces, a lack of understanding across generations can create value clashes and communication failures that have a detrimental impact on working relationships. Based on my experiences, I provide three strategies to manage the multi-generational workplace: flex management styles, encourage multi-generational teams, and openly discuss generational differences.

Strategies for the Multi-Generational Workplace

1. Flex Management Styles

Since each generation brings its own set of strengths and challenges to the workplace, it is important for managers to manage and motivate by flexing their style. For example, a Baby Boomer (born from 1946 to 1964) expects feedback once a year, with lots of documentation, while a Millennial, Generation Y or Nexter (born from 1981 to 1994), is used to praise and could mistake silence as disapproval. Millenials are confidant, sociable, tech-savvy, and optimistic. At the same time, they may question authority, display a lack of overall professionalism, bore easily, and enter the workforce with high expectations.

A large retail chain I was providing conflict management training for was having difficulty with their Baby Boomer managers working effectively with Millenials, a population that represented between 60% and 70% of their workforce. In a training session, the following tips for managing the Millenial generation were discussed:

  • Expose them to a variety of tasks, switch tasks frequently, let them multi-task and discover new ways of doing things;
  • They’ll listen, but they’re used to their voices being heard. Be a mentor or a coach rather than the “boss.” Take time to explain things, step back to let them do their best, and return to assess;
  • They are group-oriented and inclusive and want to work alongside friends, not just “co-workers.” Build a friendly atmosphere and a sense of team;
  • They have a lot happening in their life. Allow for their input into the schedule, with advance requests for days off and a structure that allows for switching shifts;
  • They are more likely to respond to a daily challenge than a long-term goal. Provide structure, clearly state goals and define daily success factors;
  • Provide formal and casual feedback regularly, as they expect acknowledgment of their achievements.

An interesting revelation for these managers was that the generation they struggled to manage and motivate at work were, not surprisingly, the creation of a constellation of factors in society during these employees’ childhood and youth. Some managers, with children who were of the same age, sheepishly acknowledged their contribution to raising individuals who presented challenges to employers and reminded the group of this generation’s strengths.

2. Encourage Multi-Generational Teams

A workplace assessment for a provincial government agency revealed that in one of the five technical units, the manager was a conflict-avoider, who wasn’t addressing the split in the unit across generations. A division was obvious in the physical layout of desks, the assignment of tasks, the nicknames for the groups, and the perceptions of team members. The Baby Boomers saw Generation X (born between 1965 to 1981) as being less loyal to the company, wanting to be promoted before “paying their dues” and being “me-oriented” in that they both expected and received special treatment from the manager (a fellow Gen X). The Gen Xers referred to the Baby Boomer group as the “old guard” and viewed them as unmotivated to work and entitlement-oriented, based solely on seniority, rather than technical skill.

One of the recommendations for the unit was to structure the workforce to create cross-generational teams, in order to build relationships and share technical knowledge for tougher projects. This re-distribution of tasks and management attention demonstrated respect for both senior and junior technicians.

3. Get it Out In the Open

In a team-building workshop held for a federal government agency, a candid conversation allowed co-workers to discuss the differing values that were causing stress in their working relationships. These values had often been expressed in the workplace, with judgmental statements made towards others, such as “That’s not the way it should be done” or “In my day…” Value-driven disagreements can arise out of the generation a person has grown up in.

Traditionalists or Radio Agers (born from 1922 to 1945) and Baby Boomers, raised in an environment which taught them to respect authority, may have a tendency not to challenge the status quo, which can frustrate Gen Xers, who have been encouraged to speak up. Gen Xers, as the “latchkey” generation, developed self-reliance, which can cause them to view Millenials as spoiled and privileged. Achievement-oriented Millenials may see Gen Xers as overly pragmatic and cynical.

Openly discussing how historical events, developments in technology, and the changing nature of society have created strands of commonality within generations created an unexpected outcome. It allowed a values-based disagreement to be shifted off the individuals involved to the environments in which they were raised, by developing awareness of the attributions people were making about others and the underlying cause for these labels. At the same time, it dispensed with some of the existing stereotypes, and acknowledged the uniqueness of each person.

On a reflective note, I struggle with the contradiction that, in order to explore diversity, we describe commonalities, which has the risk of creating stereotypes. Yet, often it is the courage it takes to talk about difficult and sensitive topics in a respectful way that creates the opportunity for tolerance, insight, acceptance, and respect for our differences. The benefit, of course, is the ability to recognize and maximize the strengths that each individual brings to the workplace.

Contemplating diversity in the workplace from the perspective of a broader range of individual differences, including the influence of generation, allows co-workers and managers to recognize that each person is unique. Today’s complex workplaces cannot survive, nor can they thrive, without this recognition.

Selected References

Gravett, Linda, and Robin Throckmorton. Bridging the Generation Gap: How to Get Radio Babies, Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers to Work Together and Achieve More. New York: Career Press, 2007

Lancaster, Lynne C., and David Stillman. The M-factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the workplace. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Zemke, Ron, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak. Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in your Workplace. New York: AMACOM Books, 1999.


About the Author

Heather Swartz

Heather Swartz, M.S.W., C.Med., is a Partner with Agree Incorporated.



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