Managing a Multigenerational Workforce

You’ve likely heard the statistics, stereotypes and horror stories:

Millennials – those born after 1980 – now comprise the majority of the American workers, and by 2020 will make up 70 percent of the global workforce

Millennials will have a new job every 18-20 months

The needs of this new workforce majority are significantly different than those of Gen X, Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation (those born between 1925-42), and the subsequent management of these generations is a significant issue

Forty percent of Millennials think that blogging about workplace issues is acceptable, compared to 28 percent of Boomers

Seventy percent have “friended” their managers and/or co-workers on Facebook and are connected to an average of 16 co-workers on Facebook

So can Gen Xers, Boomers and the Silent Generation work with the new majority?

The answer is “of course,” but it needs to be done intentionally – not reactively.

First, debunk the stereotypes. Not all Millennials act or are motivated the same way – like their generational predecessors. According to Jim Antony, associate vice provost and professor at the University of Washington, generational differences reveal themselves not in the values we hold but in how we demonstrate those values. “For instance, someone who grew up in the ’50s and desires work-life balance may have it look completely different than someone from Gen Y does,” he says.

Second, manage to the strengths and needs of each individual. If your managers have not received leadership training within the past five years, then their style – and effectiveness – has been rendered obsolete. Most managers are Xers and Boomers who learned leadership and management techniques under a significantly different time than today. One size no longer fits all.

Third, ask questions. The most effective management technique is to ask every employee, “What’s going on?” and “What do you need?” Eighty percent of Millennials say they prefer on-the-spot recognition over formal reviews, and feel that this is imperative for their growth and understanding of a job.

Fourth, change is good, but getting older generations to embrace it is difficult. I have a professional services client, and the younger employees like to work at their desks listening to their iPods with ear buds. This drives one of the firm principals – a dedicated Boomer – crazy. He wants to ban all iPods. My question is why? If work is being done accurately and promptly, what is the problem? Most Millennials tell me it helps their productivity. (I’m a Boomer too, and I’ve never been able to work well with music on, but if it doesn’t bother anyone else, what’s the problem?). Obviously, we don’t want tellers to have ear buds on when waiting on customers, but what about back-of-the-house employees?

Finally, the key to long-term employee engagement is finding out what people want and delivering it. Research shows younger employees are actually very loyal while they are working for a company; however, younger employees also realize that long-term job security is a thing of the past, says Jennifer Deal, author of Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground.

In our upcoming book, The Next Generation Global Workforce, youth expert Jennifer Kushell and I discuss the impact Millennials are capable of having on your business. You can raise the bar significantly when providing small changes people want. The best leaders are those who can meet the needs of all employees by accommodating individual needs – dress codes, rewards, workplace flexibility, mentoring. By “giving in” on these needs, you can raise your expectations of performance. In turn, you will get that higher performance from more engaged employees who are more willing to help you succeed.

I’ve found in most cases, older workers are willing not only to mentor younger employees, but desirous of “reverse mentoring” – getting younger employees to mentor them. Millennials are the most educated generation in history; they are way more comfortable with technology than older generations, and have an appreciation of globalization, diversity and culture.

Bottom line? Hire and manage based on values. The major commonality when successfully navigating four generations at work is shared values. Values are different than behaviors.

You have a defined workplace culture. That culture has either been intentionally developed and carefully nurtured by you, or accidentally developed by the people you hire – for better or worse.

The former is better than the latter, and the key to sustained success. Your success is entirely based on the employees who represent you to customers, community, vendors, partners and shareholders.

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