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Working Effectively with Five Generations of Employees

It is hopefully clear that working effectively together is mandatory in business. Aspects such as having common goals and clear roles, establishing strong relationships, communicating openly, and respecting each other must be held in high regard by everyone involved. Diversity in gender, ethnicity, education, language, and ability are just a few of the factors that can impact how people work together.

Importantly, when a person was born and what was going on during those times (socially, economically, politically, technologically) impacts their own experiences, values, beliefs, opinions, interests, and way of doing things…which adds to workplace diversity.

As a reminder, there are presently five generations in today’s U.S. workforce (including the Xennials “micro-generation”):

Baby Boomers     1946-1964

Generation X     1965-1979

Xennials     1975-1985

Millennials (Gen Y)     1980-1994

Gen Z / iGen     1995-2012

Note: Dates are approximate and there is some overlap because there are no standard definitions for when a generation begins and ends.

Unfortunately, organizational leaders, self-pro-claimed generational experts, marketing specialists, and many others overly use generational labels and their associated stereotypes. These labels seem to conveniently simplify the complex diversity of people in today’s workplace. But ask yourself, are the characteristics assigned to these generational labels accurate or even appropriate?

If we’re not vigilant, we may replace a real understanding of people in any generation with false assumptions which, in the workplace (as in our personal lives) can be very damaging. This misunderstanding can lead to unfair discrimination with real economic and human consequences. And Millennials, likely more than any other generation, have suffered as a result of these labels.

It is important to understand that traits, values, beliefs, interests, etc. vary across people in every generation and if you stereotype an entire generation, there can be misunderstanding, miscommunication, frustration, lower teamwork and work efficiencies, and decreased results. So, it is critical to strive for an understanding of people at the individual level as opposed to relying on generational generalities.

Here are a few suggestions for working effectively with inter-generational coworkers:

  1. Don’t use labels…ever – For example, when introducing new employees and co-workers, share what they bring to the organization and what they may have in common, instead of focusing on generational differences.
  2. Don’t assume anything – Just because an employee fits into a particular generation, don’t attach generational stereotypes to them. For example, even though you think a Baby Boomer might stay at their job longer, don’t assume that they are satisfied or won’t leave. Or, just because Millennials are supposed to be tech-savvy doesn’t mean that the Millennial you’ve just hired is (unless you hired them for a technical position).
  3. Check your bias…regularly – Ask yourself: Have you bought into the generational stereotypes based primarily on what you’ve heard or read? And how much does your own experience influence your thinking? Treat every individual as just that, an individual. Don’t assign specific generational preconceptions and biases to them, even though that may be easier said than done. Continually questioning your views and checking your preconceptions can help you stay focused on the individual and providing the resources and support they need to be successful.
  4. Focus on individuals, not generations – It’s hard enough to be successful without also dealing with stereotypes and myths. Does the employee have the requisite knowledge, skills and ability to work well with others and to do their job? People should read books about how to be an effective manager and leader, not how to manage a generation. Talk to team members, get to know them, and ask how they prefer to be managed. Asking such questions leads to important discussions and improved communication and understanding.
  5. Embrace differences…diversity – Keep in mind that most generational stereotypes are based on a middle-income, white, American-born demographic. However, America is a melting pot of culture, socio-economic groups and nationalities. Labels are too simplistic to describe anyone with accuracy.

Working effectively with employees across all generations means striving to develop relationships based on earned mutual trust and respect. Don’t take shortcuts by relying on stereotypes, preconceptions, and misinformation.

Thanks to Laura Dillingham of HPISolutions for her contributions to this article.