culture employee engagement

Leadership Challenges: Leading a Multigenerational Workforce

Over the past few weeks we’ve touched on challenges all leaders face. Today I’m tackling an issue I’ve seen pop up over and over again lately (and one that we will continue to face!): how to lead a multigenerational workforce. I get questions about this from managers all the time. “How do I calibrate my leadership across generations? What I do for a Boomer, for a Gen X, a Millennial, or now the latest generation to enter the workforce, Gen Z?”

Here’s good news for leaders: what drives human behavior in the workplace, at its most fundamental level, is the same regardless of generation. We are all hardwired for things like validation – to be seen, to be noticed. We’re hardwired to be recognized for what we do, the things we accomplish, our special skills. We’re also hardwired to get feedback on our performance to know where we stand. Across all generations, a question our limbic system is asking all the time is “How am I doing?”

What differentiates each generation?

Every era has a defining signature, and each generation’s coming-of-age experience characterizes how they view the world. For the Greatest Generation, their era was marked by everything from a depression to a World War, impacting their world view and what is important to them. Boomers grew up under parents with a scarcity mindset. They entered the workforce with parents who told them they were lucky to have a job. The conditions of that job mattered much less than the security it held. 

It’s certainly been different for Boomers and Gen X than for Millennials or Gen Z. One of the examples of this shift is the worldview around job security. If you’re a Boomer, and certainly for some Gen X, you define work more as a survival issue. If you have a job, you have food on the table and a roof over your head. Work didn’t have to be fun, and it didn’t have to be enjoyable. You didn’t have to find meaning and purpose in it. You just needed to earn a regular paycheck.

If you’re a Millennial or Gen Z, you grew up in a different era. Generally speaking, you didn’t have extended years of deprivation in your childhood like your parents, and especially or grandparents likely had. And that’s a good thing! The American economy is robust and has been for over the last nine years. As a result, the younger generations simply see work differently. They don’t view work as a survival issue. 

For example, according to a recent Forbes article, Millennials they see work as a place to extend their social network. They value collaboration and a team-based environment. They want to enjoy the people they work with and like doing things with them outside of work. They want to find meaning and purpose in what they do. This desire is a struggle for many older managers who haven’t developed the leadership muscle to guide a new generation. Many Millennials and Gen Z employees are also values focused. If an organization has core values, they expect them to be followed by every leader in the organization, much more so than perhaps the expectations were with previous generations. 

We all need recognition and validation

At our core, what drives our behavior is the same, and that is really good news for managers. It means the work you do around validation, recognition, and giving constructive and supportive feedback, resonate the same neurochemically in all generations. It has a uniform benefit.

Now, the Boomers may not expect it as much as Millennials, but it’s reassuring to a leader to know that when you do certain things with your team it has equal benefit across the board, from a brain perspective. 

Does that mean that you’re supposed to give more frequent recognition to Millennials and Gen Z? That would be a good idea, though leaders should balance sharing their praise and recognition in public and in private during in one-on-one sessions.

Generations and the pace of change

Here’s one other generational issue we see in our client companies. Let’s say for a Boomer it took eight years to get from one title iteration to the next. For Gen X, that iteration between titles might have dropped to five or six years. Today, that iteration between title changes for a Millennial may have collapsed to two or three years. This shift is great for Millennials because they need to have a consistent sense of progress. As their quality of work and contributions increase, they need to be seen and receive validation for their efforts, such as a title change. But, for Baby Boomers, it can look like this younger generation is moving too quickly. 

Boomers and some of the older Gen Xers may feel a little threatened by the pace of Millennials as they move up the ladder within organizations. This is something managers need to be aware of. Simply validating, understanding, and empathizing with Boomers about the pace of change will go far in terms of easing frustrations. 

Managers should simply acknowledge it’s happening and offer recognition and validation: “I agree, the pace of life has changed. Everything is moving more quickly, which is challenging for all of us. But there is an opportunity here to work together to better our work culture and increase productivity.”

Leaders can also use this conversation to encourage their Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to lead company culture around validation and recognition and encourage them to serve as mentors for the eager Millenial and Gen Z generations. A win-win!

Key Takeaways

  • Regardless of generation, we all need validation and recognition to perform best at work and create an engaged culture.
  • Examine each generation’s perspective. Did they experience scarcity growing up? Do they crave a purpose to drive them?
  • For Baby Boomers and some Gen Xers, the pace of change may feel too fast. But most Millennials will thrive under faster title changes. Be aware and and acknowledge the pace of change to your Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

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