Jill Geisler: When leading a multi-generational team, avoid stereotypes

February 15, 2023 4:15 pm

There are five generations in today’s workforce: Silent, boomers, Generation X, millennials and Generation Z. They can range in age from 18 to 80 ― and all just might be working for the same organization!

The secret to managing across generations

It’s simple: Avoid stereotyping people by their ages. That may fly in the face of helpful mass media articles with headlines like “Managing Gen Z is like working with people from a ‘different country.’”[1] Or “Need to Keep Gen Z Workers Happy? Hire a ‘Generational Consultant.’”[2]  Feel free to read those pieces, but do so with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s important to understand that you’re reading anecdotal evidence ― not research. While it may include data and stories you find interesting, beware of making sweeping and unhealthy generalizations about the people you hire and manage.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine commissioned a review of literature about generations in the workplace and came to this conclusion:

“Contrary to popular narratives, the committee found, rigorous studies have shown that individuals from the same generation are just as likely to be different from one another as they are from individuals born in other generations.”[3]

What that study and others advise is that managers should learn about generational influences ― from technology to historical events to cultural trends ― but not lump people into categories and manage them as though they are forever defined by that cohort.[4] In other words, get to know your people as individuals, and do your best to meet them where they are ― not where you assume they are.

Other things to remember

In addition to avoiding generational stereotypes, here are seven things to keep in mind.

1 People grow and change over time. What your employees need today may change as their life and work experiences evolve. Your youngest employees might be the most digitally savvy people on your team. Your Gen X staffers might have been independent latchkey kids growing up. Your boomers and members of the Silent Generation may have started their careers accustomed to top-down, chain-of-command leadership. You can freeze those generational images in your brain. Meanwhile, needs, interests and priorities shift over time. Good managers work hard to observe peoples’ growth and adapt the guidance they give them, always aligning it with the organization’s goals.

2 We are products of much more than the era in which we were raised. If we focus solely on generations, we forget the intersections that make us who we are. Gender, family, race and ethnicity, birth order, personality, education, health, geography, economics, politics and religion may all affect how we experienced our formative years and how we adapt over time.

3 Don’t confuse age with intellect, skill or motivation. As a manager, I liked to tell people I wanted a team filled with “grown-ups of any age.” I said it to reinforce the notion that good ideas, responsibility and accountability could come from any team member. It can hurt workers of any age when managers assume those who haven’t paid their dues must wait their turn to have influence or that veteran employees inevitably coast on their past glories. When you know your team members as individuals, you avoid making assumptions about their skill or will.

4 Define expectations. Be clear from the start about your standards of quality and performance. What does flexibility mean to you? If your newest hires think it means creating their own start and end times, but you think it means being able to occasionally swap shifts, you’ll run into problems. What does collaboration mean to you? If you want all team members to use group chats or apps to keep people posted on projects but some staffers opt out, you need to define the accountability you expect and provide the necessary training, especially for those who were introduced to the digital world later in their careers.

5 Check your language. Managers often speak in metaphors or cultural references of their time. Whether making an offhand reference to the $64,000 Question, framing a situation in song lyrics or citing phrases from movies they assume everyone has seen, managers may be telegraphing to some team members that they are outsiders. Aim for clarity, and never assume everyone shares your musical, film and literary interests.

6 Facilitate connections across generations. Don’t start with the idea that mixing generations at work inevitably causes problems. Think instead in terms of the opportunities for people to learn from each other. Reverse mentorships, in which experienced staff pair with younger hires, can benefit each.[5] (“I’ll walk you through the capital budgeting process, and you can give me a tutorial on search engine optimization.”) If you sense tension in your team, don’t just chalk it up to “the way different generations think.” Determine what behaviors are causing concerns and address them directly.

7 Learn from valuable and valid sources. For reliable information on age groups, look for sources like the nonprofit, non-partisan Pew Research Center, which provides research-based insights into generational trends.[6] It’s one of my favorite resources for leaders who want to understand the societal forces that affect their business and staff. Another go-to source is Gallup, which has ongoing studies on workplace issues, especially around employee engagement, and tracks it across generations.[7] These sources can help you understand why some employees may tend to be more politically active and expect their companies to be socially responsible or how varying generations feel about union membership or work-life harmony. Just remember, you’re reading about trends that are a snapshot in time and not universal truths about everyone you manage.

Success requires ongoing commitment

Be a continuous learner about generations but do so with the understanding that there’s no magic formula for managing people by age groups. It’s much more complex and nuanced ― and that’s why it takes your best leadership skills, however old or young you may be!

[1] Leonhardt, M., “Managing Gen Z is like working with people from a ‘different country,’” Fortune.com, Oct. 10, 2022.

[2] Hughes, J., “Need to keep Gen Z workers happy? Hire a ‘generational consultant,’” nytimes.com, Feb. 19, 2020.

[3] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, “Categorizing workers’ needs by generation such as baby boomers or millennials is not supported by research or useful for workforce management,” News release, July 21, 2020.

[4] Rudolph, C.W., Rauvola, R.S., Costanza, D.P., et al., “Generations and generational differences: Debunking myths in organizational science and practice and paving new paths forward,” Journal of Business and Psychology, Sept. 4, 2020.

[5] Kobie, N., “’Reverse mentorship’: How young workers are teaching bosses,” bbc.com, Nov. 14, 2022.

[6] Pew Research Center, “Generations & age,” Research topic, Page accessed Feb. 3, 2023.

[7] Pendell, R., and Vander Helm, S., “Generation disconnected: Data on Gen Z in the workplace,” Gallup.com, Nov. 11, 2022.


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