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  • Writer's pictureTaryn Abrahams

Bridging the Gap: The Multigenerational Workplace

Generational friction is inevitable today because we've never before had five generations in the workplace. This new phenomenon complicates our work relationships because while people of all generations have the same basic needs, they meet those needs in different ways. There are four approaches to the five generations. The approach we take determines the results we get.

Four Approaches

  1. Ignore Them

When a generation first hits the workplace, it's easiest to ignore them. Their numbers are small, so they are easy to miss. Even more, since they are a minority, they tend to adapt to the dress, communication styles, and approaches of the other generations. They drive to work in flip-flops and change to shoes in the car. We don't see the flip-flops, so we don't think anything has changed. If you want to ignore generational issues, it's easy...don't hire people you don't understand. In the past year, I've heard hundreds of executives and managers say, "I'm done hiring Millennials." But since the current workforce is 35% of Millennials, we no longer can ignore it; that leaves us with three remaining choices.

2. Fix Them

When there are too many members of another generation to ignore, it's tempting to try to fix them. This insinuates that Millennials are broken and need to be less like themselves and more like the older generations. Fixing goes both directions. Over half of all younger-generation employees disparage the abilities of older employees, just as almost 75% of older workers disparage the abilities of younger generations (Sticking Points by Haydn Shaw). Most of us have had some experience trying to fix people in our family life, and we know how ineffective that is! We spend too much unproductive time in our organizations trying to fix the other generations when they don't think there is anything wrong. No matter how hard you had it, your younger employees didn't experience it, so it's not real to them. So go easy on the "back in the day" stories.

3. Cut a Deal with Them

Once half a new generation hits the workplace, power begins to tip. The new generation begins eating lunch together, and it doesn't take long for them to realize that everyone else at the table is changing from flip-flops into shoes in the parking lot. Then they begin to ask each other way. "If we work in an office or a customer service call center and don't see customers, why can't we wear flip-flops?" On a practical level, some generational differences can be solved by cutting a deal. We need to remember the thoughts of traditionalists (Born before 1945) fought casual, and now most workplaces no longer require a tie and jacket. Boomers worked long hours and relocated, and today we take for granted that candidates have to talk job offers over at home before they can give an answer to relocation. Thousands of Boomers and Gen Xers will fight adjusting to more networked and casual style of the Millennials, and in ten years they won't remember their organization did it any other way. Smart organizations know things will shift, and they will do it gradually and with understanding rather than holding on to old habits until generational tensions erupt and they have no choice. They move from cutting a deal to the ONLY approach that takes full advantage of the sticking points.

4. Lead Them

The problem with cutting deals is that you can't do it for everyone. NO matter what leaders come up with, someone will be upset. It can create lots of craziness and it will be too difficult to manage. Throughout history, managing has worked. Each of the first three approaches is management. Managers ignore, managers determine what should be fixed, and managers cut the deals and then announce them. Unfortunately, managing down isn't getting the same results anymore. So, what's left? What's left is to lead. Leaders love their people. If we love people, we won't try to change them. We can only lead people if we quit trying to change them, and we can't quit trying to change them until we appreciate them, and we can't appreciate them until we understand them. LEADERSHIP STARTS WITH UNDERSTANDING. Once we understand others, we realize that if we had been born where they were born and raised in the situation they were raised in, we would think a lot more like they do. Understanding is the antidote to the relationship poison of fixing.

These sticking points are inevitable, and they often get teams stuck. But they don't have to. The same generational conflicts that get steams stuck can cause teams to stick together. Stuck in the past or sticking together going forward: it's a matter of turning a potential liability into an asset. With the right tools and understanding, they can instead be huge opportunities to make our organizations more effective. The bottom line is clear; the new generation will bring change, and smart organizations don't fight what they can't stop. It calls on leaders to adjust their approach and be creative in their approach. Companies that embrace this and focus on ways to engage all five generations will create a competitive advantage over companies that resist these changes.

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