Scott Beagrie looks at how leaders can effectively manage different generations within the workforce
Today’s business leaders potentially have the most diverse mix of motivations, behaviours and values to manage in their workforces than ever before. Why? The answer is because a typical organisation can potentially have four generations working alongside each other: veterans (born before 1946); baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964); Gen Xers and the Millennials (born after 1980). While such discussions come with a caution over stereotyping, each generation has undoubtedly been shaped by the environment and conditions in which they have grown up, meaning they’re likely to favour different modes of communication, patterns of working and leadership styles.
Research carried out by PwC in conjunction with the London Business School and the University of Southern California compared responses from Millennials and non-Millennials at the same stage of their careers. The NexGen 2013 study found that the former are far more likely to remain in a job if they feel supported and appreciated, form part of a cohesive team and have greater flexibility over where and how much they work. Non-Millennials, on the other hand, place greater opportunity on pay, promotion and development opportunities. Julie Williams, partner at business coaching consultancy Tinder-Box, acknowledges that appealing to a workforce which is opposite to ‘one-size-fits-all’ will prove challenging for firms, but they can derive considerable benefit from better understanding each generation. “Organisations which respond positively to the Millennials, for instance, may see increased motivation from employees at the other end of the career lifecycle, as they share many of the same characteristics,” she explains. Meanwhile, Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, recommends companies adopt a similar approach as they do when marketing to customers. “Companies are used to the idea of customer segmentation – they should apply this thinking to staff – employee segmentation, and not assume [everyone] wants the same things from a job.”
Bridging the gaps
Managing multi-generational teams can pose enormous challenges for organisations and it is up to senior leaders to ensure their managers on the front-line both understand and accept generational differences and are able to create an environment of mutual respect. Accordingly, they need to put any preconceptions to one side and learn not to make assumptions. Employees are not “cultural clones” as a result of their age group, cautions Professor Nicholson. “They have different motivational ‘compasses’ and managers have to learn how to read them: who is driven by values, or a desire to practice a skill, or to live a particular lifestyle?” he says. “It is about understanding the forces and pressures in a person’s life as well as their preferences and tastes.”
Typical characteristics of baby boomers, for instance, are that they work hard, desire status and reward, respect authority and are loyal to their employers. Generation X, which are now following them into many senior management roles, tend to be more independent, like to lead with a vision and have been heavily influenced by non-traditional management thinking that has attached importance on factors such as emotional intelligence. Meanwhile, Gen Y or the Millennials have grown up in the fast-paced Web 2.0 age, accessing knowledge at the touch of a button and, significantly, been instrumental in the advancement of social media. They also like to co-create and work collaboratively and the line between home and work is more blurred than with any other generation. Notably, the relationship with their immediate manager is likely to be more relevant to them than with the wider organisation.
To realise the full potential of each generation, forward thinking companies have already introduced greater flexibility into both their workplaces and processes. As the NextGen survey showed, Millennials expect control over where and how they work, so organisations may need to consider some form of flexible and/or remote working to reap the benefits. In turn, if employees are out of sight, managers must then be taught to measure performance on output rather than hours worked.
Although a particular strategy may be aimed at maximising the performance of one group of individuals, it must be inclusive and where practical and appropriate, extended to everyone. Again this could yield additional benefits as flexible hours or homeworking may be a way of holding on to a valuable baby boomer coming to the end of his or her career for longer. Assess the approach that managers take to a whole range of tasks from holding meetings and disseminating information to conducting appraisals and reward and recognition schemes. While it is impossible to customise every process, make sure there are none which alienates any one group. Baby boomers, for instance, have grown up in a meetings culture, but younger generations typically view them as time-stealers. Similarly, the traditional once a year appraisal is unlikely to be sufficient for feedback-hungry Millennials.
Learning at work
There is vast potential for the transfer of knowledge, skills and experience across age-diverse groups and an effective way of capitalising on this is reverse mentoring, which will also encourage interaction. “The younger can mentor the old, especially around social media and the use of technology,” says Nicholson. Williams agrees, adding: “Two-way inter-generational mentoring has the added bonus of the older generation not only learning what makes the Millennials tick but improving their own social networking skills at the same time.” Business leaders should also make sure a range of learning and development styles are open to the workforce. Baby boomers may favour traditional classroom and face-to-face training while younger generations are likely to feel at home with interactive technology-based methods like online learning. “People need the freedom to shape their own learning and to explore and connect,” says Nicholson. On-the-job learning opportunities which unite the generations. An ambitious Millennial, for instance, is likely to enjoy being seconded to a project where he or she can master new skills.
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