I was at the Genius Bar the other day soaking up the smarts and getting an introduction to the benefits of backing up data before updating to a new OS. As is so often the case at the Apple store, I found myself working with people from several generations. They seemed to be collaborating with relative harmony and purpose to ensure my data wasn’t lost forever, they seemed for the most part happy, and they seemed engaged in their jobs – from the store concierge (no, not a greeter, and not a Baby Boomer either) to the flight deck controller at the Genius Bar, to the Genius. Many leaders and HR pros are struggling to find a way to make multi-generational workforces mesh and be productive. The chatter is all about the changing workforce and managing generational “differences” or as I prefer to say “nuances”. We talk a lot about how each group has specific needs – Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials. We talk about how generational differences often seem to polarize the workplace, and what to do about it. It’s sad to say, but I don’t see the same patterns in many corporate settings.
When will we finally be ready to walk the walk (less talk, more action already) about bringing people together? Where does being an authentic leader fit into this equation? Will focusing on data and generational differences truly help our current employee engagement crisis? Why are we still asking these questions?
The best leaders recognize these nuances and understand how to engage – and in my opinion – Champion the similarities (there are more than differences by the way) to engage. Here’s how today’s workforce breaks down for those who want a refresher or are simply data driven:
Traditionalists, the group born before 1945, are also the smallest group in the workforce today at about 12 %, according to Gallup. Born in the hard times of the Great Depression through WWII, this generation values is fatalistic. They value hard work. They view their relationship with employers as a responsibility. Most have retired, but those who’ve hung in may be seen as inflexible fossils by the rest of the organization. Their willingness to work hard may be paired with inflexibility. Fail to recognize their deep experience and you will be rewarded with a failure to engage.
Boomers, born into the relative ease and prosperity of post WWII through the mid Sixties, are the suburban generation, the Woodstock generation. They want to be valued as individuals (not unlike Millennials). They want to be needed. They think they deserve good fortune (again, not unlike Millennials), they’re generally optimistic, and they think things will get better although they may not want to take responsibility for actually making things better. They’re loyal as long as they feel involved but disengage rapidly when they think their contributions aren’t appropriately recognized and rewarded. Respect is a path to engagement with this group.
Gen X, a relatively small generation at 41 million, is sometimes called the Forgotten Generation. They are pragmatic, skeptical of leadership, and quick to disengage if they feel slighted. They demand work-life balance but reject rules. They want to do things their way and may not respect Boomers (selfish) but may have an affinity for Traditionalists, the Silent Generation, whom they view as sharing the curse of being overlooked in the workplace. Gen X is dangerously disengaged. They lack the optimism of the Boomers, share the fatalism of the Traditionalists, and dismiss what they see as the entitled attitude of the Millennials. To engage Gen X, leaders must give them the space to do it their own way, relax the rules a bit, and realize they’ll question every attempt made to engage them.
Millennials, a generation which accounts for about 77 million individuals, according to Pew Research, is roughly the same size as the Boomers (76 million). Millennials were told ‘Good Job!’ and “You’re so smart!’ by indulgent Boomer parents. They demand recognition for even routine tasks, want to know why before they do anything, and expect to be consulted on matters big and small. They see work-life balance as a birthright, value innovation and chafe at having to work with people they see as less bright, tech-savvy and social as themselves. They’ll be most engaged when working with people they think are smart, social and committed.
With so many disparate needs and motivators, what can leaders do to increase employee engagement? It’s really pretty straightforward:
- Recognize and reward people.Forget about what generation for a moment.A one-size-fits-all reward and recognition programs will fail no matter who you are dealing with. When you understand what motivates (or sets off) certain generational groups or individuals, you can tailor your response, build more effective teams, and adjust recognition and reward programs.
- Acknowledge shared needs. No one likes surprises; everyone craves respect; everyone wants to feel included in the forward motion of the organization; everyone hungers to learn, and we all need pretty continuous feedback. Build your culture on the shared needs of the multi-generational workforce and you’ll see fewer cracks in the foundation.
- Engage by creating a sense of teamwork that spans generations. There’s a place for everyone in the world of work. The work ethic of Traditionalists can inspire all groups. The optimism of Boomers can help all employees see the positives in the organization. The skepticism of Gen X will keep everyone honest. The enthusiasm and self-confidence of Millennials is infectious and inspiring if it’s channeled. Teams are made up of individuals with a shared goal; build your organization’s goals around a shared sense of work and responsibility, a sense of optimism, healthy skepticism, enthusiasm, and confidence in the organization’s mission.
It wouldn’t be real if I didn’t add that leaders need to build trust with employees by engaging at an emotional level. To manage multigenerational workforces, Recognize that the people who work for you are individuals with intrinsic human value. Reward excellence, and encourage and educate those who come up short. Engage by committing to shared goals, committing to building a great place to work, and sharing your sense of engagement with the goals of the organization.
A version of this was first posted on Forbes.