People are living longer and they are also working for longer, and this is leading to a situation that is unique in history to date, where five generations will be working alongside one another. This is the subject of a recent article by Rebecca Knight (2014) for the Harvard Business Review blog. In theory this situation could bring with it all kinds of management and leadership challenges associated with productivity, challenge, stress, happiness and overall engagement. Yet Knight suggests that it is the role of the boss to work effectively with these different groups to create a workforce that is productive and motivated, and to get everyone working well together.
This may not always be as easy as managers may hope. There are all kinds of tensions that can emerge in the workplace. For example, as Knight explains, in the past there was a different structure in the workforce and people moved upwards as they got older and developed more experience. However, with flatter organisations, the situation commonly arises where a younger person is managing an older one. This can be stressful for both parties, with the younger person baffled as to how they should manage the older person, and the older one wondering how they ended up being managed by a younger one, given their wealth of experience.
These tensions are something that managers should be aware of and should be able to diffuse. Knight points out that there are many stereotypes of different generations that simply are not accurate. Outlining the stereotypes, Knight points out that common ideas about the different groups are that they are like this: “The Boomer mystified by Facebook; the Millennial who wears flip flops in the office; the Traditionalist (born prior to 1946) who seemingly won’t ever retire; the cynical Gen Xer who’s only out for himself and the Gen 2020er – born after 1997 – who appears surgically attached to her smartphone”.
However, in reality people are people, and managers of today are little different than they were a generation ago, at least based on stereotypes. If one focus on the differences between generations is not particularly helpful, so its best if managers get to know their employees individually and understand each one in that way. Knight suggests that getting into debates that focus on conversations like “people of my age think this way about it” is a waste of time, as people are very different in reality. In terms of the difficult issue of managing someone that is older and maybe has more experience, the suggestion of Knight is to focus on an approach of collaboration. By seeing that person as a partner, it is possible to benefit from their extensive experience and help them to feel included.
This approach is argued to also be highly effective for workers that are in their 20s. They have been used to discussing and debating different concepts throughout school and university and they want to feel included and valued. Ultimately, the manager is in charge and still makes the final decision but getting different viewpoints can be helpful in driving innovation and coming up with better ideas, as many minds work on the same problem.
One great opportunity in cross generational teams according to Knight is mentoring. There can be the regular kind of mentoring where older, more experienced people mentor those that are younger and with less experience. However, with so many different generations in a team it is also possible to put in place reverse mentoring. This is used in such a way that younger people that have never known a time without the internet and who are highly adept with social media and mobile are able to teach older people how to use social media to achieve business success. This can have many advantages.
Finally, Knight suggests that in managing people from many generations it is helpful to consider their needs. People at different life stages will be looking for different things from their work. For example, those that are younger have few obligations outside of work, but as people get older they may have children and may be in need of a bit more flexibility and a bit more money too. Later on people may not care as much about training but they will want a good work life balance. Using this information to be able to assign work to people can be helpful in leading an effective team.