It always amazes me that we are still discussing how to bridge the generational divide in organizations. When I started n-gen 15 years ago, I never imagined that the issue of how to motivate, engage and collaborate across the different generations would be relevant for this long. The goal has always been to find ways that leaders and team members can leverage the strengths of each generation, while managing the differences, in order to have higher performance and more collaborative teams.
Overcoming the Workplace Generation Gap
Most leaders come to us with questions about how to overcome a “generation gap” in their organizations, often between more experienced employees (Baby Boomers and Gen Xers) and younger colleagues (Millennials) and most recently Gen Zs since they are just graduating from college and university.
The most obvious challenge is that employees from the same generation tend to spend most of their time at work with members of their own generation. Baby Boomers chat and have lunch with other Baby Boomers while Millennials and Gen Xers also stick to their own cohorts.
While, in many ways, it’s natural for people to gather with their own peer group, it may not be good for the team morale or building a strong sense of comradery in the organization. People enjoy work more, and they are more productive, if they have good personal relationships with their colleagues. If members of your team are only building relationships with those from their generation, this can harm overall productivity in the workplace. It also impacts innovation and creativity by limiting the diversity of thought and not engaging or communicating with others who may have a different point of view from our own.
Communication style and medium is a key area of work where different generations clash. For example, Baby Boomers may prefer to handle work related issues over a phone call or meeting, while most Millennials would rather send texts or instant messages. This can cause issues as a Baby Boomer may feel that a Millennial is being disrespectful if they text back instead of returning a phone call, while a Millennial may feel like the Baby Boomer is “wasting time” by having a phone conversation instead of a chat through text. While these are simple differences, I see time and again how our preferred communication style can impact our ability to effectively engage colleagues and collaborate if we aren’t aligned.
Technology often comes between different generations in other ways as well. Being digital natives, Millennials are comfortable using tools such as social media, instant messaging, smart phones, cloud storage, and various computer applications often much more so than older generations. In fact, Millennials may expect to use these tools in the workplace and choose organizations to work for based on their investment in the latest technology. Baby Boomers may be more comfortable doing work the way it has been done for years, and they might resent these changes. Even if they welcome them, there may be a steeper learning curve for members of older generations. This can cause tension in the workplace. Some of our Gen X clients have demonstrated resistance to changing the way they work from technology, to work space, to reporting structure. When we become comfortable with one style, it’s often a challenge to adjust to a new approach.
Helping Different Generations Work Well Together
Can’t we all just get along?! Well, most of the time we do. Having trained thousands of people globally, there is a general willingness to find common ground, to leverage the strengths of all team members and create a fun, collaborative environment. It benefits everyone in an organization, and the organization itself, when different generations work well together. Here are a few ways that leaders can implement to help overcome any clash points:
- Focus on Results
- Different generations work differently. A Baby Boomer may measure success by the number of hours they are in the office and working, while a Gen Xer may measure it by how quickly they can accomplish their project. A Millennial may spend just as much time and effort on a project, but they might do it from a coffee shop on the weekend or from their phone in the middle of the night.
- A Baby Boomer might see a Millennial leaving work early or arriving late and think that the Millennial isn’t getting work done. On the other hand, a Millennial may send an email on Friday night and not get a response from a colleague until Monday, which could cause them to arrive at the same conclusion.
- To alleviate this problem, leaders should focus on results, not on the number of hours put into a project or how quickly someone responds to emails. The main goal is that projects get done on time, on budget and that the work is high quality. Team members should have flexibility when it comes to how they achieve this goal.
- Mentoring and Reverse Mentoring
- Encourage two-way conversations and knowledge sharing by having more experienced team members mentor younger ones, and by also flipping things around and having younger team members mentor more experienced ones.
- Not only does this help share knowledge between generations, but it also strengthens bonds in the workplace.
- No longer can we assume experience is tied to age. Younger employees are often “scary smart” – they have been exposed to lots of experiences, much earlier in their careers, than previous generations. We can not discount what someone can teach us simply because they are new to the work world, industry or organization.
- Team Building Activities
- Purposely arrange team building activities that are collaborative and require members from the different generations to work together. Not only will this provide an opportunity for different cohorts to have some fun together, but it will also help them develop their own ways of working across generational lines which they can apply back in the office.
- Seek input from the different generations on your team as to what would be fun team building activities that is most inclusive for everyone and promotes cross-generational collaboration and bonding.