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Managing Generational Differences in the Workplace

Different generations exude various qualities and have differing needs in the work place. Get an insider’s tips on how to manage diverse teams by recognizing three fundamental needs that are common across employees of all generations.

“Kids nowadays…” That phrase used to signal a long, weary complaint by parents about their wayward teenagers. But I’m hearing it more and more outside the home nowadays– in offices, in executive suites, even from managers who just can’t fathom their new work force. They’re hiring smart, young employees, providing them with opportunities to climb the corporate ladder, paying them well — and how do they show their thanks? They announce that they’re going trekking in Venezuela and they quit! Or they decide to go and work for a non-profit. Or, with next to no experience, they want to start their own business. What are they thinking?

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There probably isn’t a company in America that isn’t wresting with the problem of managing different generations. Baby boomers, Gen X, Millenials: they all seem to want something different. Boomers are good team players, love the social interaction at work, will work all hours and are willing to invest time in working their way up the corporate hierarchy. Gen Xers are so much more sceptical, think the boomers are crazy to work so hard, and are determined to do a good job — but also to go home at night and have a life. And the latest crop — Millenials — have no patience at all; if they’re not happy, they won’t work through it: they just leave. Boomers like handwritten notes and phone calls, Gen X mostly do email and Millenials do text or instant messaging. How are you supposed to pull all these people into a team and get them to work well together? They don’t talk the same language or use the same tools. Some days, it feels like herding cats.

It’s very easy to become obsessed by the differences, because it’s the differences that create the friction. Many managers I talk to worry about this a great deal. They expend a lot of energy trying to model their communication and leadership styles to fit each generation so that everyone will feel valued, appreciated and capable of doing great work. But they also worry that, in adopting different styles for different generations, they are losing their own identity and authenticity. It’s hard, they say, to speak several different languages at once. And it can get confusing.

I have a lot of sympathy with these leaders because they’re trying to do the right thing. They’re hiring talent and working hard to get the best from it. They know that, to do so, the very last thing they should do is force everyone to conform. Do that and the talent will walk — or you’ll end up with an army of clones that won’t give you the creativity and diversity you need to compete. So how do you manage teams that are so diverse, that have such different values and needs?

I think that, underneath the dazzling differences, three perennial commonalities remain: the desire for fairness, the need to be stretched, and a yearning for community.

Fairness

I’ve had employees thank me when they were laid off. Why? Because they were given plenty of warning, they felt they had some control over the situation and they had the information they needed to understand why certain tough decisions had to be made. No matter how tough the circumstances, you can get a high degree of commitment from employees who feel that are in the know and that everyone counts. I remember asking a job candidate what he’d liked most about his former employer. “It was a great place to work,” he said, “because everybody was somebody.” That doesn’t mean everyone had the same work or the same pay; what it meant was that everyone felt involved, informed and respected.

Stretch

It isn’t just companies that want to grow, people do too. Every disgruntled employee I’ve ever talked to complained, fundamentally, about the same thing: they’d stopped learning. The most enthusiastic employees are those that are climbing a steep learning curve. One of the best companies I’ve seen recently, Navigant Consulting, sends it senior executives to conferences where they get all the nice perks of a company retreat — luxury hotel, morning yoga, surfing, spas — but they couple that with intense mornings of high quality executive education. It was the learning, not the luxury, that had everyone buzzing; it was the seminars that provoked the most vigorous thinking and debate. At a different level, Thermanon’s President and CEO Carol Latham built a terrific, committed workforce when she persuaded the Cleveland school board to send her English and math teachers and offered classes during office hours. It’s easy to forget: employees want to do a great job and they’re grateful to anyone who gives them better tools to do so.

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Community

Psychologists maintain that humans experience two kinds of happiness: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic happiness is food and drink and all those things that provide temporary delight. The problem with hedonic happiness, of course, is that the more you have, the more you want — so it’s fundamentally unsatisfying. Eudaimonic happiness is different; it is about a sense of purpose and is experienced when we can contribute to something bigger than ourselves. At its best, this is what teamwork provides. It enables us to build something — a product, a business — that we could not construct alone. The best companies take this a stage further, either by giving employees time off to work in the community or by allocating a percentage of profits to charitable organizations. National Van Lines supports a whole host of charities this way. Neutral Posture takes it a step further and lets the employees vote on which charity to support each quarter. Seeing your company do good in the world provides very high levels of personal, and job, satisfaction and commitment.

These three key ingredients — fairness, stretch and community — are not generationally specific. Neither are they gender or culturally specific: they’re as true for women as for men, for Europeans as for Americans. They will never eliminate the differences you observe between generations and cultures but they do offer the possibility of unifying all those disparate personalities and needs. And the employee who wants to leave to go off trekking? Well, you may never be able to stop her — but if she’s experienced fairness, stretch and community, she may just trek back one day.

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