Thinking Outside The Generational Box

With five generations in the workforce, not a day goes by that a business leader does not struggle with workforce questions related to the seismic generational shifts. How can we create a phased retirement plan? How can we leverage the experience of our aging employees? How can we develop emerging leaders? How can we retain and engage our Millennial employees? What do we need to do to attract the next generation of innovators?

From the Harvard Business Review to Fast Company to Huffington Post to HR Journals, and beyond, researchers and writers are constantly discussing the nuances of managing each distinct generation. The Silents and Baby Boomers need loyalty. Gen Xers need job stability. Gen Yers need job mobility. Gen Zers need job flexibility. Yet, when we think inside these generational boxes, we risk missing important opportunities.

Reading the existing literature on managing intergenerational workplaces, you’ll find recommendations from leveraging Gen Y’s tech savvy to Baby Boomers’ business acumen. Yes, generational stereotypes make it easy for us to understand a large swath of our workforce; the problem is that these stereotypes are more often wrong than right.

Many of the most groundbreaking technological advances have come from Baby Boomers (think iPod), while some of the most innovative business models have come from Gen Y (think Facebook). If you think these examples are anomalies, visit your local Apple Store and have one of their grey-haired team members teach you how to sync your spanking new iWatch with the latest iWhatever.

As Thomas Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen, authors of The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business propose, “Generational thinking is like the Tower of Babel: it only serves to divide us. Why not focus on the behaviors that can unite us?”

Uniting “us” requires us to ignore much of the popular generational conversations taking place, and instead turn our attention to our own workplace. Each industry is unique. Each office is distinct. Every department has a particular culture, and all of these factors will eat your generational-management strategy for breakfast. This being the case, when it comes to answering the questions, “How do I leverage my intergenerational team?” I recommend you take these three steps:

Focus On Similarities

If your team/department/office has a common goal and mission, then you have a lot more in common than you may realize. Use this to your advantage! Focus your intergenerational workforce on the common vision. And if you are ambitious, further underscore their similarities through volunteerism, food, sports, and the arts. At the end of the day, all humans need to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, and this can be achieved by helping your intergenerational team see how they are all part of the whole.


Relish Complementary Skills

By breaking outside the generational stereotypes, you can appreciate the skills your team possesses, and leverage them towards your organizational goals. Your intergenerational workforce has what it takes to succeed, but only if they know what one another knows, are aware of what they do not know and have the curiosity to fill in the gaps. Pigeon holing employees based on our generational stereotypes stifles creativity and inhibits individuals from bringing their full set of experience and skills to work every day. When we acknowledge the value of individuals, we foster an environment where each member’s unique traits and skills can flourish.


Treat All As Peers

Hierarchy has never been sexy (except for the King, of course). Employees and employers need to treat one another as equals. By respecting one another’s competence and acknowledging that everyone has experience in differing domains, your intergenerational team can begin leveraging their skills towards mutually beneficial results. Young employees have an energy that needs to be harnessed while seasoned employees have maturity that must be harnessed. We all bring varying skills and experiences to work. And we bring them to work for different reasons. But, we bring them to work to achieve a common vision. Regardless of one’s position or tenure within an organization, we can all learn and teach one another.

Daniel Pink, author and thought leader, suggests, “There’s a great opportunity — in organizations large and small — in “dual mentoring.” That is, an older worker could mentor a younger one … and, in exchange, the younger work can mentor the older.”

Taking the time to treat everyone on your team, regardless of age or experience, with as a peer, with respect, is vital to leveraging the power of your intergenerational workforce.

Working together, we can all grow stronger. Organizations have an incredible opportunity now that five of the most industrious generations are working side by side. For organizations to leverage this incredible asset, we need to move past working next to one another, to working with one another. The issues our organizations are striving to solve are bigger than ever. Only by working together, learning from one another and focusing on the shared vision do we stand a chance at surmounting the challenges we are working so hard to solve.