In today’s workforce, it’s possible for five different generations to work alongside one another. Baby Boomers (born between approximately 1946 and 1964), Generation X (1965-1980), and Millennials (1981-1995) comprise the bulk of the workforce, while the Traditionalists (aka The Silent Generation, 1922-1945) and Generation Z (1996-2015) make up a smaller sliver. With people living and working longer, this blended workforce is new and unique.
A multi-generational workforce can be a boon to businesses. When people of different ages effectively collaborate, that can result in more innovations and creativity, stronger brand-building, greater inclusivity, and knowledge sharing.
However, multi-generational workplaces can also be a breeding ground for conflict and misunderstandings. A report by AARP reveals that “60 percent of workers report the presence of generational conflict in their workplace.” This conflict might be caused by differences in communication, values, goals, culture, or more.
As a leader, how can you minimize conflict and effectively lead a multi-generational team? Try the following four approaches:
1. Combat Stereotyping
Different generations have different reputations. Millennials are known for being purpose-oriented and frequently switching jobs. Baby Boomers have gained a reputation for workaholism and ambition. Gen X is known for being task-oriented and independent. While generational groups may have shared values, traits, or priorities, it can be counterproductive (or downright harmful) to make broad assumptions. You’re working with individuals, not a data set.
Instead of stereotyping, make a conscious effort to get to know your people as individuals, and encourage the rest of your team to do the same. Resist making snap judgments, ask open-ended questions, and practice active listening to develop an understanding of each person on your team.
2. Practice Flexible Communication
Not everyone’s communication preferences are the same. Some people prefer a hands-off approach, and only want guidance from leaders if they are starting unfamiliar work or are missing the mark in some way. Others prefer hands-on support and frequent check-ins. People may also prefer different communication mediums (email, messaging apps, phone, in-person), and will have varying levels of comfort with slang/casual communication.
As a leader, you don’t have to puzzle over each person’s communication preferences. Just ask. Once a person has made their preferences clear, do your best to keep that in mind when interacting with them.
3. Understand What Motivates People
In general, different generations are motivated by different things. Baby Boomers are known to be motivated by stability, prestige (e.g. job titles), and goals. Millennials are often characterized as being focused on purpose, growth, and a rejection of the “always on” work culture. These, of course, are broad generalizations and cannot be automatically applied to everyone.
Get to know what motivates your team members—what makes them tick. If people are motivated by growth and self-improvement, for example, consider ways to scratch that itch. Try adding events such as regular lunch-and-learns, training sessions, mentoring cohorts, or skill-share sessions.
4. Provide Knowledge-Sharing Opportunities
When different generations are actively learning from each other, that creates opportunities for innovation and growth. Consider starting a two-way mentoring program, where younger and older employees mentor each other. Younger individuals could benefit from the life lessons and institutional knowledge that older/long-time employees bring to the table; while older workers could benefit from the tech skills and insights of younger generations. Again, these are generalizations, but the point is that we can all learn something from one another. If a mentoring program doesn’t fit with your team’s ethos, you might try group learning sessions, where someone shares a specific skill or insight with the team for 15 or 20 minutes, and then everyone has a chance to ask questions. You might be surprised by the depth of knowledge and multiple perspectives on your team!
Multi-generational workforces have gained a reputation for being rife with conflict. That certainly doesn’t have to be the case. As a leader, you have the power to guide your team members to work together, share knowledge, and reject stereotypes. It all starts with tuning into your team and treating them as the unique individuals they are.