Strategy & Leadership

Old School vs. New School: Managing a Multigenerational Workforce

In the perfect workplace, age shouldn’t matter. But in the real world, unresolved generational differences are taking a toll on worker productivity and retention in service organizations.

According to a study from the Association of Talent Development, more than a third of employees waste five or more hours each week (12 percent of their work week) because of generational conflicts between colleagues.

And the generational divide is just getting wider, as Generation Z (aged 20 and younger in 2016) enters the workforce and Traditionalists (aged 71 to 88) hang on to their jobs longer, creating a five-generation workplace that also includes Baby Boomers (aged 52 to 70), Generation X (aged 37 to 51) and Millennials (aged 21 to 36).

If you’re a Boomer or Gen X-er, don’t assume Millennials don’t know anything because they’re too young or that they’re ‘lazy’ or ‘entitled.’ — Jim Finkelstein

So how can you effectively navigate the generational differences on your team to create a more positive — and productive — work environment? Begin by following these two practical steps:

Step 1: Understand (and Appreciate) the Differences

What exactly are the differences across the generations? How can you adjust your management style to accommodate those differences?

One helpful resource for understanding this is “Managing the Multigenerational Workplace,” a study by the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. The paper identifies several characteristics about how the generations prefer to be managed:

  • Traditionalists: Prefer managers who are directive, specific in their expectations, and take a logical approach to work-related challenges. Since they were not raised with technology, they prefer face-to-face contact.
  • Baby Boomers: Prefer managers who seek consensus and treat them as equals, wanting managers to take a democratic approach, work with the group to define the team’s mission, and show warmth and caring.
  • Generation X: Prefer managers who are straightforward, authentic, and hands-off in their management style, appealing to this generation’s desire for flexibility in how and where work gets done.
  • Generation Y (Millennials): Prefer managers who take an educational approach and invest time to understand their personal and professional goals, placing a high value on managers who coach them, are positive, motivational, collaborative, and achievement-oriented.
  • Generation Z: It is still too early to determine their management preferences, according to the report. However, one preliminary finding is that they may value having an impact on the world more than their jobs.

Understanding these key distinctions can help you to manage, motivate, and retain top talent across the generational spectrum more effectively.

Step 2: Break Free from Generational Bias

While it’s useful to understand the common characteristics for each generation, relying on stereotypes alone is a surefire way to create tension and conflict.

“If you’re a Boomer or Gen X-er, don’t assume Millennials don’t know anything because they’re too young or that they’re ‘lazy’ or ‘entitled.’ And if you’re a Millennial manager, don’t assume your Boomer employees are too old and can’t learn new technology just because they’re older,” says Jim Finkelstein, author of “FUSE: Making Sense of the New Cogenerational Workplace” and the president and CEO of FutureSense Inc. consulting firm.

Finkelstein recommends that managers invest the time to get to know each member of their team on an individual basis — what they like and dislike, and what makes them tick. “Have conversations with them. Focus on uncovering their unique strengths and weaknesses, so you can put them in the best position to succeed for the team, regardless of their age,” Finkelstein advises.

The Bottom Line

When there’s generational conflict, it’s usually due to managers and the team viewing “old school” vs. “new school” as a battle between right and wrong. But savvy managers see “old school” and “new school” not as polar opposites but as diverse sources of knowledge, experience, and energy that — when channeled appropriately — can contribute to a richer and more productive work environment.

  • William Ketel

    For certain a manager should know each team member, at least to having a good understanding of that member’s abilities and work ethic. And it is helpful to be familiar enough to have developed some trust, in both directions, as well. But it is important to keep in mind that one is the boss and the other is not. So the relationship is not even, and it will not be even. Of course, at the same time a manager must support their team in assuring that the team is treated fairly and has the resources to do it’s job in the manner expected of it. Taking care of the team is almost as important as directing it. And none of that relates to age or generation.

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