How to Thrive in a Multi-Generational Workplace

Avoiding Conflict and Creating Opportunity

How to Thrive in a Multi-Generational Workplace - Avoiding Conflict and Creating Opportunity

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Respect and acceptance are vital for a successful multi-generational team.

Terry is 22 years old, and an enthusiastic new starter at your organization.

This is the career that he's wanted since high school and, now that he's got his degree and joined your team, he's impatient to impress his new colleagues with his ambition and creativity.

But he soon finds the going tough. Some of his fellow team members don't seem to appreciate his eagerness, and they are wary of his ideas and suggestions.

The team is a mixed bunch. Some are middle-aged and others are nearing retirement, and have been at the company for years. They feel that Terry doesn't understand the way that things get done in the organization. His enthusiasm and energy is starting to wane as he feels worn down by their reluctance to consider new ideas.

Terry isn't alone. Around the world and across industries, more generations than ever before are working together. Increasingly, it's younger employees who are leading older team members, turning the established order on its head. This new scenario can cause problems, but it also presents opportunities for sharing knowledge and experience. This article explores how to thrive within a multi-generational workplace.

Introducing the Generations

In days gone by, it was common for just two age groups to be represented in the workplace. There were long-serving, "dyed-in-the-wool" old-timers and ambitious newcomers.

Times have changed, and now you could find yourself working with as many as five generations. Broadly speaking, each one has its own set of preferences, styles, perspectives, and experiences.

This table shows the different age groups that are in the labor force today. It describes their traits and characteristics, and how they are frequently stereotyped.

  The Silent Generation Baby Boomer Generation Generation X Generation Y or Millennials Generation Z
Born 1922–1945 1946–1964 1965–1980 1981–2000 1995–2015
Core values
  • Respect for authority
  • Conformity
  • Dutiful
  • Custom
  • Optimism
  • Tolerance
  • Workaholism
  • Stimulation
  • Stimulation
  • Self-reliance
  • Informality
  • Skepticism
  • Realism
  • Self-direction
  • Goal-focused
  • Purpose
  • Uniqueness
  • Authenticity
  • Creativity
  • Shareability
Work ethic
  • Discipline
  • Hard work
  • Loyalty
  • Questions authority
  • Self-centered
  • Crusading causes
  • Task-oriented
  • Self-reliant
  • Work-life balance
  • Multitasking
  • "What's next?"
  • Eagerness
  • Flexibility
  • Self-reliant
  • Personal freedom
Communication styles
  • Written
  • Formal
  • One-on-one
  • Telephone
  • Direct
  • Email
  • Text messaging
  • Text messaging
  • Social media
  • Digital natives
  • Hand-held devices
Feedback
  • No news is good news
  • Take pride in a job well done
  • Not keen on feedback
  • Direct – "How am I doing?"
  • Require lots
  • Instantaneous
  • Bite-sized
  • Immediate
  • Real-time
Stereotypes
  • Old-fashioned
  • Practical
  • Rule followers
  • Ambitious
  • Optimistic
  • Wealthy
  • Selfish
  • Risk takers
  • Cynical
  • Job hoppers
  • Tech-dependent
  • Work to live
  • Constantly connected
  • Distracted
  • Apathetic
  • Multitaskers

Recent findings show that Millennials are the biggest generation in the U.S. workforce, followed closely by Generation X and the Baby Boomers. Silents are a small minority, and the youngest generation – the Zs – are just starting to enter the workforce.

The Potential – and the Pitfalls – of Multi-Generational Workplaces

Generational diversity has great potential. People from different generations can grow and learn from one another as they are exposed to one another's ideas and experiences. The new perspectives they gain can spark new ideas and prompt new ways of working.

However, the potential for conflict and misunderstanding is very real. Intergenerational conflict within the workplace is a growing issue. A 2011 study found that "intergenerational cohesion" is one of the top three workplace risks.

Different generations can struggle to understand one another's values and working styles. Working together and sharing power can be problematic. And as more people delay their retirement, younger generations can feel that their opportunities for career advancement are being restricted.

Six Strategies for Multi-Generational Harmony

So, now that our workplaces are more generationally diverse than at any time in history, but at risk of conflict because of this, how do we all work together harmoniously? Here are six strategies for thriving within a multi-generational mix.

1. Establish Respect

It doesn't matter how old or how experienced we are, we all crave respect. And, just as newcomers need to respect older generations' seniority and experience, so long-servers need to adjust to and respect the talent and potential of younger generations. Only when each group respects the other can both thrive.

The key to respecting other generations is to understand and accept that they are different from yours. Consider what motivates people from different generations, what experiences they might have had, and what their working styles are likely to be. The table above can help you.

2. Be Flexible and Accommodating

When you understand what makes other generations "tick," being able to accommodate their needs and preferences, where practical, can help to prevent division and conflict.

Each generation has its wants and needs, and values different ways of working. Older generations often have fewer responsibilities and costs at home and they appreciate the opportunity to work part-time or reduced hours, so that they can enjoy the benefits and rewards of a lifetime's work. But an increasing number of Generation Xers are part of the "sandwich generation," responsible for caring for both elders and children alongside their work. And for members of Generation Y, a sociable life outside of work is often just as important as their career.

3. Avoid Stereotyping

It's easy to stereotype different groups. For example, if you're a Baby Boomer, you may think of Millennials as tech-obsessed and lacking in people skills. To Generation Z, Boomers may seem to be stubborn and inflexible.

Everyone is unique so, instead of assuming the worst, fight your unconscious bias and accept individuals based on their merits, rather than as "typical" members of particular generations. Remember, chances are, somebody may be stereotyping you! You can change their perceptions and attitude by demonstrating a willingness to listen to new ideas or suggestions, and, as we explore below, by sharing your knowledge and expertise.

4. Learn From One Another

The different generations have a wealth of knowledge and experience that they can share. Our article, Knowledge Management, explores in detail how companies can retain, share, store, and organize its intellectual assets.

The Boomers in your team, for example, can pass on the knowledge, information, useful contacts, and perspectives that they have developed during their years at work. In return, a Generation Y colleague can help them to get to grips with recent innovations, such as the latest developments in social media and viral marketing. Our article, Reverse Mentoring, explores ways that you, as a manager, can encourage this type of knowledge-sharing relationship.

Successful multi-generational teams identify, value and build on one another's skills and experiences. This focus on individual strengths, rather than on generational differences, is a key part of thriving in the modern workplace.

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5. Tailor Your Communication Style

The generations often have their preferred methods of communication. Silents and Boomers tend to use one-on-one, telephone or written communication, whereas Generations X and Y tend to like emails and texts. Generation Z generally prefers the collaborative interaction of social media.

Generations differ in the degree of formality they use, too. Older team members tend to be more formal, whereas their younger colleagues will more likely use colloquialisms, abbreviations and "emojis" – small digital images and icons that are used in messages to represent ideas or emotions. This is more suited to personal or less important messages or communications. Serious or important messages are probably not the best times to use smiley face emojis!

Sticking rigidly to your own favored means and style of communication can alienate others, so, although it might not feel natural, try to tailor your communication to suit the recipient whenever it's appropriate.

6. Don't Overlook the Similarities

Focus on the things that unite you with colleagues of all generations, rather than dwelling on the differences.

You might struggle at first to find similarities between yourself and older or younger team members. But, however stark the differences might appear to be, research suggests that there are more similarities than differences across the generations. After all, most people like to feel engaged with their work, to receive fair pay, to achieve, to build a better quality of life, to be happy and respected, and so on. Likewise, many of us share the same grumbles, such as feeling overworked and underpaid!

Key Points

Multi-generational workplaces can host as many as five generations. Having people who were born between the 1920s and the 1990s work together creates the potential for creativity and innovation, but also for conflict and misunderstanding.

You can avoid these pitfalls and thrive through:

  • Staying respectful, flexible and understanding.
  • Avoiding stereotypes.
  • Being open to learning from others, and helping them to learn from you.
  • Adapting your communication style.
  • Focusing on similarities between individuals, rather than on generational differences.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (10)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi ateksolutions,

    Welcome to the Club. As one of the Mind Tools team, I’m here to help you here and in the forums, and to get the very most from the club.

    I'm not sure from your comment if you are asking about addressing age in an interview as an interviewer or an interviewee. However, many countries now have laws in place banning employers from discriminating based on age. Many employers have opened themselves up to working with diverse populations, including incorporating mature employees who bring sometimes vast experience to the positions they occupy.
  • Over a month ago ateksolutions wrote
    Hello Everyone,

    What do you think about addressing age in an interview? I have managed many projects with 'distributed' teams and know how important it is to understand cultural differences. Not as a stereotype (as everyone is unique), but as a starting point for discussion and inclusion.

    In an interview, I could draw comparisons between understanding and working with cultural as well as generational differences. But, my hesitation is not wanting to draw attention to my age.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hello Angelz,

    The characterization of generational differences is a guideline and shouldn't be applied literally. Like you, I am a "Boomer" and I do not share all of the characteristics of that generation. People are amazingly diverse. As you say, we should not perpetuate stereotypes - of any kind.

    Thank you for your comment!

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
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