by Sharon Florentine

How to manage a multi-generational workforce

Nov 25, 2015
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

With multiple generations making up today's workforce, conflicts are bound to arise -- especially as millennials assume management roles. Here's how to take best advantage of the unique characteristics of Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y.rn

generation gap2
Credit: Thinkstock

Today’s multi-generational workforce poses unique challenges for CIOs and managers. Baby Boomers, Generation X and millennials all bring unique strengths to work, but as more millennials are being promoted to leadership positions, the potential for workplace disruptions is high.

“The Baby Boomers — those who aren’t retiring, at least — have the benefit of experience. Generation X workers have patiently “waited their turn,” and they feel that they should move into leadership positions by virtue of their working their way up. But companies are desperately in need of the technology skills, the flexibility and adaptability of millennials, and that’s pushing many of them into leadership roles, which can be really disruptive,” says Dan Schawbel, partner and research director at Future Workplace and New York Times bestselling author of Promote Yourself.

The Multi-Generational Leadership survey from Future Workplace, an executive development firm and Beyond, The Career Network, revealed that a growing number of millennials are managing Gen X and Baby Boomer professionals. However, according to the survey’s 5,771 respondents, this shift in leadership could be harmful to a company’s work environment.

The survey found that 83 percent of respondents have seen millennials managing Gen X and Baby Boomers in their office. However, 45 percent of Baby Boomers and Gen X respondents feel that millennials’ lack of managerial experience could have a negative impact on a company’s culture, while over one-third of millennial respondents said that it’s difficult managing older generations.

Today’s fast-moving, technology enabled workplaces demand the kind of tech-savviness and flexibility that the millennial generation has in spades, says Schawbel, which is why many companies are tapping them for leadership roles. But there’s a lack of effective training and mentorship that millennials are used to, and that’s causing a major disconnect between generations in the workplace, Schawbel says.

“Millennials have the tech skills and the energy, and they understand the need for instant gratification and how the digital era works — they grew up with this. They tend to be collaborative, overly communicative leaders, but this can grate on Boomers and even Gen X workers who are used to more autocratic leadership and a strict hierarchy of roles,” Schawbel says. Companies must adapt by integrating awareness, mentoring, training and support to help mitigate conflict between different generations who must all work together, he says.

[ Related Story: Busting Millennials-in-the-workplace myths ]

Awareness and understanding

Awareness is the first step toward mitigating and overcoming these conflicts, says Rich Milgram, CEO of Beyond, especially awareness of differences in communication styles, and how technology can both help and hinder each generation.

“Communication used to be an art form in the boomer generation — think letters. It was a means to an end for Gen-Xers — think e-mails — and for millennials it’s more of a distraction because of the speed of texting, Snapchat, messaging. With chat, text and instant messaging, communication has become more blunt, short and to the point, which can be great for millennials but not for older workers. There has to be much more thoughtful communication,” Milgram says.

Incorporating these generational differences into mentoring and training relationships can help smooth over generational differences and make sure each knows where the other is coming from. It’s also important to focus on overall strategic expectations and make sure everyone’s aligned with the larger goals of the organization, says Schawbel.

[ Related Story: How to win the hiring war for graduating millennials ]

Clear expectations

“Regardless of age or generation, executive leadership has to make sure that the emphasis is on what workers are producing and how everyone can contribute to the success of the organization. Creating diverse working groups that are based on a goal, or around a project or an outcome and set clear expectations of what needs to get done and when, but let each figure out how to navigate their differences and strengths to get to the ‘how,'” he says.

That’s certainly a challenge for executives, but in a way it’s a great problem to have, says Deidre Paknad, CEO and co-founder of workforce performance and productivity solutions company Workboard. With multiple generations in the workforce, managers and executives have a much larger set of skills and strengths from which to draw, she says.

“As a leader, you have to encourage each generation, each person, to operate at their own best level. That means understanding and accepting different roles, and then designing a process that incorporates each role. It acknowledges and supports an inclusion culture, but also sets the stage for trust. If we share a common intent to do our individual best, we can trust each other even if we are at different levels — or in different generations,” Paknad says.

[ Related Story: Winning workforce strategies for a new generation of talent ]

Look for opportunities to exploit strengths

“If I had a workforce of people who could communicate with the elegance of a baby boomer, the thoughtfulness of a Gen-Xer, and the speed of a millennial, that would be perfect. But it’s something that doesn’t exist. So we have to work on getting these groups and these personalities to work together in groups,” says Milgram. As Paknad says, identifying strengths in each generation and using them to the best advantage is key — and there are many opportunities to do so.

Transparency is a great example, she says, and it’s something executives and managers strive for but is difficult to achieve. Fortunately, millennials not only understand the need for transparency and open communication, they willingly embrace it, which can be great for an organization, Paknad says.

“Millennials love transparency — they’re constantly updating on social media, they’re constantly communicating about what they are doing and how well it’s going. That extends to the workplace; this generation won’t resist if you ask them for a status report, they don’t accuse their boss of micromanaging,” she says.

Harnessing that native bias toward transparency can actually save money and time for organizations who won’t have to invest as much in a complex project management organization, on tracking software, or expend as much energy figuring out where projects are, who’s doing what and why, she says, because millennials will tell them.

“With millennials, CIOs have a valuable talent resource that, through transparency, can simplify work, streamline status updates and projects and make work much more social and collaborative, and it doesn’t have to be a gargantuan effort,” she says.

Millennials’ tendency toward working collaboratively and meeting goals as a team can also help them connect and work well with the Baby Boomer generation, since these two groups tend to have lots more in common than they’d think, Paknad says.

“They tend to want the same things: belonging to something larger than themselves, working as a team with purpose and mission, happily engaging with others who are striving and successful, and to an extent, that’s what we all want at work. CIOs need to use this common ground to bridge differences,” she says.