Thriving in a Multi-Generational Workforce

Apr 13 2023 | Insights

Co-authored by Nicolas Ceasar, Carol Braddick and Thomas Wright

Can you ever see Joe Biden and Greta Thunberg teaming effectively? They might be passionately in sync on the severity of the climate crisis, but go about activities such as communicating, organizing, influencing, managing and leading in very different ways.

From the Gretas to the Joes, there are as many as five generations working together in organizations today and this mix of generations risks creating potentially challenging group dynamics. If leaders disregard the multiple and interwoven layers of generational differences - as well as the dimensions of identity, gender, and race – they may put the effectiveness of their people and organizations at risk.

Some questions leaders can ask themselves:

  • “How well are these generations working together in my organization?

  • “How can we help bridge differences in motivators? In perspectives?”

  • “How do we help people get to a shared understanding and leverage each other’s differences and strengths?”

To help leaders start thinking about this the table below may be a useful high-level view of possible generational characteristics to keep in mind as they consider how to elevate their organizations to higher performance.

Characteristics/ Stereotypes
Respectful, hierarchical, loyal, formal, CAN resist feedback
Baby Boomer
Optimistic, self-orientated, crusader, likes 1-1 communication
Sceptical, self-reliant, informal, direct communication
Purposeful, multi-tasker, texter, always on feedback
Shareability, flexible, digital, real-time, and immediate

Such tables can be a useful starting point for segmenting employees and thinking about how to design the workplace, job design, performance management and the employee value proposition to maximize the appeal to different groups of people.

However, whilst segmentation can help us to start to think about how we work with different colleagues’ needs, it is important to keep in mind the possible trap we can step into once we label people. If we assume that a label is ‘truth’, we lower our capacity to look for and be open to other information about them. Information — explicit as well as unstated — which may offer us more possibilities to influence relationships and work together more effectively.

Humans have an incredibly powerful capacity to make connections between different inputs, which is where beautiful, innovative things can happen in relationships and organizations. The shadow, or dark side, of this strength is that we often make assumptions or connections without pausing to test their validity. Assumptions that can lead to misguided confidence that we “get” another person simply by applying a generational lens.

So, how do we get traction amongst and between groups with differing drives? How can we respectfully explore potential differences and their impact? There are so many possible approaches to this, and professional coaching is a powerful option.

How coaching helps

A quick definition before we jump in: When we refer to a “professional coach”, we mean someone who is trained and certified in the nuanced, powerful ‘active learning’ paradigm of “professional coaching”, not someone who may have extensive work experience and who now leverages that experience to ‘coach’ professionals. Professional coaching includes executive coaches and others who are highly trained and certified in this learning approach.

Providing people with access to a trained professional coach, as well as helping leaders learn and take a coach-like approach with their people, can help engage all in deeper learning around these differences. Coaching can help people examine and explore nuances in differences at individual and group levels, and importantly, how these impact their effectiveness. On top of that, this active, deeper learning invites people to become more aware of, and intentional in, their impact within organizations.

To enable people be more effective in working across intergenerational differences, coaches and leaders who take a coach-like approach with their employees can help them to:

  • understand that whilst there may be generational differences these, like the table above, don’t tell the whole story;

  • develop the skills to discover, surface and value differences;

  • be vigilant and self-aware and alert to the trap of oversimplifying the complex mix we all bring to work as part of our sense of self;

  • build their skills and capacity to seek and adapt, in real time, to all information about our colleagues- with positive regard, openness and curiosity; and

  • understand how the contexts and systems we inhabit – at work and outside work - influence the extent and ways in which these dimensions show up.

The mindset shift that can take place in coaching is a shift from a judgement (judge) mindset, which influences how we process everything that comes next, to a curiosity-mindset (learner). A learner mindset allows us to suspend auto-pilot thinking and hold incoming signals from others without forcing them into inflexible boxes. Rather than putting someone in the box of “she’s a digital native”, we need to be curious about who they are and engage with their nuances and natural inconsistencies.

Coaching conversations are a safe place for client and coach to explore how assumptions, as well as perceived and actual differences influence relationships and effectiveness. They are also a valuable place to practice the skills needed to navigate complex dynamics and be ready to take these skills to relationships across the organization.

Building on coaching

If we continue to ask what else can we usefully do to leverage strengths and differences – while aligning with coaching principles such as curiosity – there are other investments that build on coaching.

Coincidentally, one of these - reverse mentoring - became popular because of intergenerational differences. The Gretas - Gen Y and Gen Z employees – shared their digital and media expertise with the Joes. Mentoring has since become far more flexible and may include mentoring to/from any direction. It’s also available via ongoing discussions as well as on demand. In many organizations, mentors’ subject matter expertise and availability are accessible via internal platforms.

Employee resource groups (ERGs) provide safe conversation spaces for employees with common identities and shared interests. They are useful for raising issues that affect specific groups of employees and exploring ways to support DIEBA goals. Employee networks also provide employees with common interests or challenges a way to keep up to date and work together on solutions.

Group coaching, facilitated by a trained professional coach, engages group members in the powerful conversations to explore differences and their impact. Team coaching focuses on the key factors that affect a work team’s success. Depending on the team composition, the team may need to take a hard look at whether intergenerational differences are blocking their success.

Through all of these conversations – 1:1 coaching, leaders coaching, mentoring and group discussions - it becomes starkly clear that generalizations can be helpful - until they are not. The generational segmentation included earlier is simply a map. Curious explorers recognize that the human terrain in front of them is far more nuanced than any map can ever portray. They have to explore and navigate the reality, using the map as a guide – and they must also update the map as they go.

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