Leading a Multi-Generational Workforce

Sept. 1, 2003
By Dr. Joanne Sujansky Before making assumptions about employee retention based on past experience, consider that you are about to see a new wave of employees

By Dr. Joanne Sujansky

Before making assumptions about employee retention based on past experience, consider that you are about to see a new wave of employees with a whole new set of expectations swarm the workplace. Known as Generation Y, they might have a few traits that will surprise even the seasoned manager. Many organizations have likely already conquered the management challenges posed by Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, and Generation X workers, and have discovered how to motivate and retain those valuable employees through some of the more prosperous economic times that we've seen. But with the arrival of Gen Y, managers will need a whole new set of rules.

Generation Y has been entering the workforce since 1998 and will continue to do so in burgeoning numbers. While there are approximately 75 million Traditionalists, 76 million Baby Boomers, and 44 million Generation X members, Generation Y is closer to 80 million, and we have not even begun to reach critical mass in the workforce yet. Managers need to prepare for the unique requirements of Gen Y and the inevitable clash between Gen X, Gen Y, Baby Boomers, and Traditionalists as they mix in the workplace.

To begin with, it is helpful to understand the environment that shaped each group. With this information, you can then adopt an innovative management style, motivate them to work together, and minimize conflict among the different generations.

What Shaped Them

Born before 1945, Traditionalists were influenced by the Great Depression and World War II. After the war, this generation rebuilt America by having faith in and partnering with institutions. In so doing, they displayed a strong work ethic and fueled the economic boom. Fifty percent of Traditionalist men are war veterans.

Born between 1946 and 1964, Baby Boomers grew up in optimistic times of expansion, watching and living "Happy Days." They had great expectations and the world had great expectations of the Boomers. Where their parents fought wars abroad and came home victorious, Boomers fought for their glory at work.

Generation X was born between 1965 and 1976. They experienced economic difficulties during the early '90s just as they were entering the workforce. Many were forced to take temp work, wait tables, and accept jobs outside of their area of study in college. Because Gen X came of age during a bleak job market, soaring national debt, the Gulf war, and lack of opportunities, the harsh economic realities of the time shaped their worldview. They come to their positions of responsibility with the knowledge that there are no guarantees.

Gen Y was born between 1977 and 1994. They grew up in a time of economic expansion and unprecedented prosperity, and until now have never experienced a downturn. Those in this generation have seen more at an earlier age than most in previous generations, such as chilling footage of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings, and the tragedy of September 11. Exposure to these events through 24-hour media has brought the world instantly to them. Because this techno-savvy generation has "seen" the world, it has a more global perspective and expanded definition of diversity than previous generations.

So is the generation gap back? You bet! In fact, generational differences represent a critical new aspect to workplace diversity. At no other time in history have organizations been faced with four generations of employees working together, each with very different values, attitudes, and expectations. But the differences that separate these generations do not have to result in conflict and lost productivity. Below are suggestions for leading all three groups successfully.

1. Offer Choices

While different, Gen X and Gen Y have some similarities. Both will demand a more innovative workplace, with flexible hours, state-of-the-art resources, cooperative scheduling, and supervisors who listen. They expect many choices, along with the freedom to pursue them. Both want to build a portfolio of skills and are committed to career development. They won't work any other way and will continue to negotiate a work-life balance – something the Traditionalists and Boomer generations never asked for. While Traditionalists and Boomers may not require as many choices, make the same options available to them as you do to the other generations. The two older generations value inclusion, and keeping them "in the loop" with the younger generations will likely enhance their productivity.

2. Offer Training Opportunities

To retain employees of all generations, it is important to appeal to their desire to learn. Emphasize career growth, paid training, and skill development. Ask them what matters to them, and really listen to their answers. Smart managers can best learn to deal with the different groups, and to negotiate through potential areas of friction between the generations, by assuming the role of coach when dealing with their employees. When using the coaching method, make sure that you balance corrective feedback with praise. Catch them doing something right, and reward them for it. Though effective in the past, the traditional "I tell/you do" school of management will not work with Gen X and Gen Y. One of the reasons Gen X and Y will be so valuable is that there will be a shortage of skilled managers to replace the retiring Traditionalists and Boomers. Developing experienced and skilled young managers will become vital to any organization hoping to compete in the future.

3. Offer an Evolving Workplace

Because the incoming group of Gen Y employees will be so large, the workplace will have to change to accommodate their unique attributes. Leaders have to evolve as well. They will have to be creative in developing new motivational techniques if they want to retain their employees and to obtain the highest performance and output possible. Managers must be innovative to retain the best people.

To manage Gen Y employees, it is important to take advantage of their strengths, and help them to understand their weaknesses. While Traditionalists and Boomers may be content to "wait their turn," Gen X and Gen Y demand a relationship-intensive environment with a lot of one-on-one communication and timely feedback on their performance. Managers have also found that the X's and Y's expect that everyone in the office will make adaptations for the good of the team. This can sometimes cause conflicts with the older Traditionalist and Boomer generations.

Build a Successful Multi-Generational Environment

To enhance the work environment, recognize that these groups will have different perspectives, and respect that generations differ in the way they see the world. It will be necessary to implement and reward collaborative activities with a multi-disciplinary approach. When you employ a coaching style of management, you will be able to give regular feedback to your employees, and you will also receive the information you need from them to know what is working. This will benefit the relationships among all your employees and go a long way toward retaining your best team members.

Joanne Sujansky, Ph.D., is the founder of Key Group, a business consulting firm. She is an expert on change, leadership, and motivation. She is the author of five books including, "The Keys to Conquering Change. For more information on her seminars, consulting or speaking please visit: www.keygrp.com.