Growth Strategies

Generations Working Together

Make the most of your multi-generational workforce by understanding employees' unique strengths and how to nurture them.

For the first time in modern history, our workforce consists of four separate generations working side by side--and the differences among them are one of the greatest challenges facing managers today. But the differences that set us apart also can bring us together. The first step to creating a workplace that optimizes employees' unique qualities and complements their differences, is to learn more about who they are:

The Silent Generation (born 1933-1945) survived economic challenges growing up in the aftermath of the Great Depression. They lived and reinforced the notion of the American Dream by working hard and being rewarded with increased financial stability. That experience fostered discipline and self-sacrifice.

The Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), the most populous generation, grew up in a culture of economic prosperity and suburban affluence. They tend to value strong nuclear families. They're optimistic and focused on personal achievement. This group is sometimes divided into two segments: those born between 1946 and 1954 (the "Woodstock" group, known for their idealistic endeavors and social conscience), and those born between 1955 and 1964 (the "Zoomer" group, known for their preoccupation with self).

Generation X (born 1965-1976), different from previous generations, grew up in families with divorced parents and/or were raised by working mothers. The term "latch-key kid" was developed during their childhood to refer to children of working parents who came home from school to an empty house. This situation fostered traits of independence, resilience and adaptability.

The Millennial Generation (born 1977-1998) is viewed as being raised at the most child-centric time in our history. Consequently, some display a great deal of self-confidence to the point of appearing cocky. Millennials are typically team-oriented, banding together to date and socialize rather than pairing off. They work well in groups, preferring this to individual endeavors. They're good multi-taskers, having juggled multiple activities as well as forms of communication--face-to-face, instant and text messaging, and e-mail--as children.

Generations at Work
Employees from the Silent Generation are typically disciplined, loyal team players. They have a wealth of tacit and explicit knowledge to share and embody a traditional work ethic. While some are retiring, many are working longer than previous generations. This provides an opportunity to learn from their mentorship. In many cases it's up to the boomers to foster these relationships without feeling threatened by them.

At the same time, boomer leaders and managers need to be open to younger employees who don't "fit the mold" that they themselves created. At work, Gen Xers don't want someone looking over their shoulder. At the same time, they do want ongoing feedback. They may have experienced times of economic downturn, possibly seeing a parent lose a job and/or experiencing lay-offs themselves. This has fostered a sense of commitment to their career and personal security over company loyalty. Gen Xers work best when given the desired outcome and then turned loose to achieve it. This means a mentor should guide them with feedback and suggestions, not step-by-step instructions. They work well in multicultural settings and bring a pragmatic approach to getting things done while having fun.

In contrast with Gen Xers' independence and hands-off style, Millennials seem to expect structure in the workplace, acknowledge and respect positions and titles, and want a relationship with their boss. New to the workplace, they're in need of mentoring, no matter how smart and confident they are, and they respond well to personal attention. Millennials will enjoy a lot of challenges as long as they're provided with support. This means breaking down goals into steps, and providing the resources and information they'll need to meet the challenge. You might consider mentoring Millennials in groups, because they work so well in team situations.

Cross-Generation Collaboration
Given these group tendencies, how do you bring generations together in harmonious working relationships? Creating opportunities for multiple and varying small team collaborations is key. The "4 Cs" below provide an easy guide to successful collaborations:

Communication: Clarify expectations and err toward being explicit. Ask questions like: How do you see this project going? What role do you want to play? How do you imagine us working together on this project? And be sure to elicit feedback; listen, listen, listen. Often it's more important to hear and acknowledge than to respond right away. When leaders engage, they inspire the uniqueness each person brings to work. When employees are engaged, they're exceptional performers.

Connection: Link tasks, roles and relationships with the organization's strategic vision. Discuss with employees how their role supports the project or the company's bottom line, and how it supports them personally. Ask them who they see themselves working best with to accomplish their goal.

Conflict engagement: Conflict can ignite new ideas and innovation and actually lead to collaboration. Help employees notice each other's styles and learn from them by fostering team-building opportunities. Introduce a process for raising issues, voicing different perspectives and engaging conflict productively.

Career development: Remember that career goals are tied to life goals. Every manager has the ability to create a climate that supports all team members' long- and short-term goals. You can do this by:

  • Learning what's important to your people and how their positions fulfill their personal and professional needs
  • Having frequent or regular conversations with team members regarding their aspirations
  • Offering flexibility in work assignments and schedules
  • Promoting and modeling work/life balance

A conversation about differences, whether generational, cultural, gender or otherwise, often includes the problems and challenges they create. Different perspectives always have the potential to foster creative problem solving and ignite energy.

Ilene Wasserman, Ph.D., is Entrepreneur.com's "Office Culture" columnist. As founder and principle of the ICW Consulting Group, she helps foster diversity and inclusion throughout the workplace by enhancing communication and collaboration at all levels.