2 2020

Leading a Multi-generational Workforce

While our workplaces may be moving virtual and generational differences may be highlighted during the social-distancing phase of COVID-19 responses, our leader-readers may wish to be focused on overcoming age differences. One trick Mike DeGrosky notes: “One thing leaders can bank on is that, regardless of age, everyone wants to be valued.”

By Mike DeGrosky

Any leader even hoping to be effective in today’s workplace will have to be very good at creating and maintaining a culture that not only works for people from multiple generations, but that purposefully cultivates and fosters collaboration between them. Here’s my case. Millennials (21-41-year-olds) account for more than half of all employees in the U.S. and that share is growing. However, Baby Boomers are working longer, and the number of workers aged 65 and older is rising as well. At the same time, members of Generation Z (20-year-olds) are entering the workplace and bringing with them new expectations and work habits. It is not all uncommon these days to find Millennials, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, and members of Generation Z in the same workforce.  

Consequently, leaders at all levels of organizations, regardless of their own generation, have no choice but to cultivate cultures that both attract and fulfill young people while satisfying older employees as well. The trick, leader-readers, is to simultaneously manage the strengths and weaknesses of each generation, foster engagement among people, and facilitate cross-generational collaboration.

With a multi-generational workforce comes multi-generational workplaces and, with multi-generational workplaces can come inter-generational tensions and conflict. That is, unless we recognize and acknowledge the challenges and lead well, with flexibility and adaptability.

Challenge: Focusing on differences. Much is made about the differences between generations, and generational differences are real. However, we tend to overemphasize them, and the research shows that those differences are slight. Yet listen closely in nearly any workplace today and you will hear Baby Boomers stereotyping Millennials and Millennials stereotyping Boomers. I’ve observed that what fractures multi-generational workforces is often not actual differences between generations, but people’s beliefs that meaningful differences exist. Those beliefs, left un-checked, can get in the way of how well people interact and collaborate with their colleagues, create artificial generational divides, and generally cause a lot of tension. Most differences between employees are the product not of generation, or even age, but by the uniqueness of people’s personalities. For me, the key to overcoming this challenge is to encourage people to understand one another; then focus, not on differences, but on commonalities, shared goals, and common direction. Do what you can to get people to see themselves as part of a team working toward a common outcome to reinforce a vibe of “we” rather than “us versus them.” 

Challenge: Generational factions. OK, so we tend to make too much of generational differences and those differences are not huge. Yet I still see people practically segregating themselves by age in the workplace. It’s an understandable fact of life; people like to hang out with people their age with whom they have much in common. However, that self-segregating by age is also a thing that, if we are not careful, can splinter a multi-generational workforce in ways that are unproductive and not conducive to teamwork. 

It has been my experience that colleagues from different generations can enjoy one another if they just allow themselves. However, the tendency to gravitate to people our age, with whom we perceive we have the most in common, can create generational factions and cliques in the workplace and send, both intentionally and inadvertently, a message of exclusion that is not conducive to string teamwork I can think of few things that affect a work group as negatively as having and “in-group” and an “out-group” regardless of whether the inclusion and exclusion are real or just perceived. For me, the key to preventing generational tension is remembering that everyone wants to feel valued and respected. 

One thing leaders can bank on is that, regardless of age, everyone wants to be valued. If the way you are relating to the older or younger members of your team (or the way they are relating to one another) is signaling, either openly or subliminally, that they are not valued people get their feelings hurt and the symptoms of hurt feelings include resistance, disengagement, anger, and insubordination. I don’t know any organization or work unit that is optimizing performance when people are resisting, checked-out, mad, or inappropriately challenging leadership. 

The key to overcoming this challenge is to encourage people to get to know one another as individual people and to spend time together both professionally and in work-related social settings. An effective leader of a multi-generational workforce should also develop ways to share and transfer knowledge by encouraging their team to learn from each with both traditional and reverse-mentoring opportunities.

Leading in a multi-generational workforce is hard work, complete with lots of “people-are-funny” kinds of challenges. However, leading a multi-generational workforce can also be an incredible gift; enabling a work climate in which tech-savvy, altruistic, ambitious and energetic young people, seeking meaning and fulfillment can work shoulder-to-shoulder with highly experienced veterans full of knowledge and wisdom who know how to get stuff done. In that environment, people from all generations have opportunity to learn so much from one another. Yet as I observe people in a variety of workplaces, I see people not allowing themselves to work effectively across generational lines – sometimes because of ego or image, but also due to any number of generational biases. 

Among other societal trends that annoy the heck out me, I’ve come to loathe generational biases; first because they, like many forms of discrimination, are fiction that serve to separate us into opposing tribes. Tribes within a work unit are antithetical to the collaborative teamwork on which effective modern organizations thrive. From the research I have done, I have come to believe that generational differences at work are much smaller than we think; it’s thinking that they’re big that affects our personal, team, and organizational behavior in unfortunate ways. 

It’s time to stop thinking about some of the problems we see in our workplaces as generational issues. Honestly, if you’ve got a problem with an entire generation of people, it’s likely that you are the problem. I’d encourage leaders at all organizational levels to create a culture in which we stop using generational differences as an excuse for distance between people and lack of cohesion; and to focus on fostering communication and collaboration that brings us all closer together and enables people, teams and organizations to do their best work.


Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forestry Division. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.