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Focus Areas Managing Talent

The New Management Challenge: Leading Different Generations

Jun 3rd 2009
By Neeta Bhanot-Sickert - People Matters Editorial Team

We are all aware of tensions that can exist within the family which are rooted in the generation gap
between grandparents, parents and children. These pressures, if not understood and checked in their
initial stages, can lead to major problems and endanger the closeness of the family unit. Now, transplant
the same situation in a workplace where teenagers just out of school have to work with people their
parents or grandparents generation - without the accompanying ties of blood and familial loyalty. One
can then begin to understand the special challenges faced by leaders and managers looking to ensure
organizational harmony and maximizing productivity in the complex and dynamic organism that is the
new multi-generation workplace.

Groups of employees from a number of different age groups, with dissimilar, often conflicting values,
viewpoints and priorities trying to work towards a common goal are bound to create friction in an
organization. The accompanying peculiarities of attitude, expectations and work ethics can lead to an
organization being pulled in opposite directions. While admitting that such discord can also be caused
by idiosyncrasies in individual personalities, one has to concede that to managers of a mixed generation
organization face certain characteristic obstacles in ensuring a harmonious work environment.

Generation in our current workplace
These obstacles can be best understood by examining at the four distinct populations of employees
based on their age. These groups are:

The so called Silent Generation (born 1925-45) often working after retirement age. This group is
characterized by the great emphasis placed by them on loyalty, hard work, discipline and respect for
authority. Employees of this age group most easily identify with seniority based systems.

The Baby Boomers (b. 1946-64) - This category of workers are generally at the peak of their careers
and often hold senior management positions. Typically they are ambitious, career orientated and

Generation X (b. 1965-82) workers seek autonomy, versatility and flexibility and place a premium on
work-life balance, growth opportunities and good relationships with colleagues.

Generation Y, also known as Millennial, (b. 1983 onwards) characteristically look for autonomy and
reinforcement in their jobs. They prefer fun and informal workplaces and just like Gen Xers also put
family and personal pursuits before career and look for the flexibility to help them achieve the right

The baby boomers generally exhibit more corporate loyalty and have no problems with obeying
organizational rules than the younger employees. Gen X and Y see hard work as output based and not
related to the hours you put in. Younger members of the organization embrace technology, flexible
work schedules and prefer performance based pay strategies whereas older employees like a stable paid
salary structure. Dynamics in a team are also affected by the age of the team members. Older
emplooyees place a great importance on working well with others, baby boomers often prefer to be
lone rangers and the youngest are the most comfortable working in teams.

Managers need to be flexible enough to adapt to these variations in order to get each employee to
perform to his or her maximum potential. A good start would be to understand the perspectives and
motivations of each generation based on research conducted on the four distinct populations. By
becoming aware of the fundamental reasons for individual behavior, leaders can use it to inspire
cooperation, commitment and teamwork. An ability to analyze conflicts stemming from generational
differences will aid in the development of plans that nips such problems in the bud. On a personal level
for managers it is necessary to work on more effective communication with employees older or younger
than themselves. On a company wide level they can use communication and influence techniques for
mixed generation audiences. By concentrating on the above one can develop management tools and
techniques that can address the needs of different generations of workers.

Overcoming these Challenges
There are several measures which can help managers to rise to the particular challenges posed by
mixed-age workforces.

Promoting respect for the other groups. It is very common, for example, for older employees to not take
their younger colleagues suggestions and ideas seriously the so called What do they know syndrome.
On the other hand the youngsters lack the patience required in dealing with their older counterparts
and often see their views as old fashioned and therefore obsolete. It is extremely important for the
company leaders to emphasize that each generation brings its own worthwhile skills and abilities to the
organization, and that no one perspective or background is better or more significant than the other.

Introducing short term projects with a mixed age group will give individuals a chance to get over their
ignorance about the other groups and hence foster understanding and respect.

Mentoring across the generational divide is another measure that would contribute to harmony by
promoting an exchange of ideas and perspectives.

Rather than brushing such conflicts under the carpet one has to ensure that staff is given the
opportunity to talk openly about their grievances or frustrations. A healthy airing of these issues will go
a long way in identifying and sorting out differences.

Finally it is crucial to emphasize the common focus of the organization and minimize the individual
differences within its component groups. Identifying with a common ground is likely to foster better
understanding and lead to more productive relationships.