How to Lead a Multigenerational Workforce to Success Companies that explore age differences through a positive lens can fuel creativity, effective knowledge transfer and revenue, while nurturing happier and more fulfilled teams.

By Gisele Marcus

Key Takeaways

  • Multigenerational workforces working in close proximity are on the rise, with employees in the 75-and-older bracket increasing substantially.
  • An environment and culture that embraces emotional intelligence, a curious mindset, and issue resolution in an open setting is key to fostering cross-generational happiness and job effectiveness.
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Global trends in employee experience and recruiting are evolving at a breakneck pace, not least in terms of team diversity. People from multiple walks of life — and with different educational backgrounds and beliefs — increasingly share both virtual and physical spaces, and ideally work together for a common cause. This dynamic was underscored by a 2022 U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics report forecasting that the number of workers ages 75 and older will increase by 77.5% by the end of 2023 and that the number identifying as neither black nor white — whether multiracial, Asian or other — would increase by 23.1%.

We're also seeing the evolution of multigenerational teams. A decade ago, companies tended to prefer more homogeneous groups — in which older organizations and enterprises retained older staff members, while bright young startups hired younger minds. Now, it's not uncommon to find five generations working side by side: the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z. Managing such a workforce can certainly present leadership hurdles, but it can also open new areas of opportunity.

Related: 5 Generations in the Workplace (and Why We Need Them All)

Leadership challenges

Managing a staff representing various age groups requires innovation in both team building and culture creation, as each group brings its own set of norms, in-jokes, biases and language. A Baby Boomer raised in post-war frugality, for example, will think about money differently than a Gen Z member who might be just discovering the world of work.

Ageism might be less famous and talked about than sexism and racism, but it's still a pervasive prejudice. Without managerial training in sensitivity and empathy, biases can wreak havoc when different age groups work together. And yes, it typically affects older generations, who might face discriminatory treatment or unfair dismissal, but biases toward younger generations also exist. Younger team members are frequently labeled as lazy, flaky or entitled, yet the U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 does not protect workers under 40. And, according to research by the BBC, older generations may be judging younger ones both too harshly and by standards that are no longer considered the norm, leading to ageist remarks like "Generation Snowflake" or the "entitled Millennial."

As a result of these challenges, you may be hesitant to fully commit to building and managing a multigenerational workforce. According to a 2020 article by Deloitte, "The Post-Generational Workforce: From Millennials to Perennials," 70% of organizations claim that leading such a crew is important for their success, but only 10% say they're ready for it.

But if you can take the leap, opportunities await. Companies that approach age differences through a positive lens can find new ways to deliver optimal creativity, fuel knowledge transfer, boost revenue and nurture happier and more fulfilled staff members.

Meeting the needs of a multigenerational team

Diversity is not merely a metric to be tracked; it is an essential component of businesses that hope to prosper in correspondingly diverse marketplaces. So, strategies are best to ensure that different generations have a chance to shine and belong.

Related: How to Create a More Inclusive Workplace

• Prioritize emotional intelligence: Creating a sense of belonging in the workplace requires a high level of this essential personal characteristic, also referred to as EI. In order to nurture it, one must be able to identify and understand his, her, or their own emotions in order to effectively hold space for others'. It also means being able to recognize and admit to biases, so as to effectively spot biases at work among individuals and/or organizations.

Emotional intelligence can be taught, but the key is reinforcing this behavior within teams by consistently modeling empathy. This point is backed by research: A Catalyst survey of just under 900 U.S. employees found that "50% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report [frequent feelings of] inclusion at work, compared to only 17% of people with less empathic senior leadership."

• Work on openness by maintaining a curious mindset: An open mind is critical to managing a diverse team and encouraging positive communication among its members. It's vital for employees to be open to hearing the thoughts and ideas of colleagues whose experiences differ.

Ageism can be a barrier here, too, for both leaders and colleagues, and the former group would be well advised to listen democratically — to avoid discounting younger employees' ideas as being perhaps "too idealistic," and older teammates' input as "too traditional." Instead, the focus should be on the merits of ideas, and how any and all might springboard a company or department forward.

I referenced a Deloitte study above, and it's helpful to spotlight that company as an example of maintaining such a curious mindset. In addition to being a standard-bearer in research, it's also at pains to reflect on previous findings and statements, and its 2020 report urged other companies to think outside of the generational label and view their workforces as havens of diversity.

Related: How to Create a Thriving Workplace by Leading With Authenticity

• Take pride in successful methods of resolving issues: When managing multigenerational or other varied teams, resolving issues quickly to reduce the risk of resentment and future conflict is essential. Consider IBM as a case in point: Lawsuits continue to be filed against the tech giant by older workers alleging age discrimination, claiming that its goal was to replace them with younger candidates.

Encouraging forgiveness in the conflict resolution process is vital. All generations will make mistakes; biases simply sneak up sometimes, and employees should be encouraged to address resulting negative feelings directly, and in a safe place. Leaders should hone communication skills to investigate issues, explore the feelings of all involved and tirelessly build new and ever-better environments.

Related: 4 Ways Inclusive Leaders Reduce Ageism

Diversity can bring wisdom, experience and innovation. If you can root out ageism and replace it with positive, open communication, you can begin to celebrate and explore differences instead of getting boxed in by them.

Gisele Marcus

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Professor of practice (DEI) at the Olin Business School

Gisele Marcus serves as the professor of practice - diversity, equity and inclusion at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. Marcus is also a corporate director for First Mid Bancshares Inc., a two-time international best-selling author and TEDx speaker.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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