4 Tips for Leading 4 Generations in the Workplace

By Robert Half on April 21, 2016 at 4:15pm

Great managers possess the ability to lead people from different backgrounds and unify them as a productive, effective team. However, this task may prove to be more challenging today as managers are supervising four distinct generations in the workplace:

  • Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964
  • Generation X, born between 1965 and 1977
  • Generation Y, born between 1978 and 1989
  • Generation Z, born between 1990 and 1999

Although their work habits vary, workers within each of these four generations often share traits. Preferred leadership styles, according to research from Robert Half, is one example: Many baby boomers are accustomed to a top-down, unilateral management style. Gen Xers typically prefer managers to act as coaches, guiding them toward better results. Generation Y often looks to a manager to be an experienced partner who will work with them to achieve a common goal, while Generation Z likes having a teacher who shows them how to accomplish goals themselves.

Download Robert Half's report, The Secrets to Hiring and Managing Gen Z, focused on this latest layer of the multigenerational team.

There are also differences in how workers from each of these generations learn, communicate, make decisions, solve problems and receive feedback. As Haydn Shaw writes in his 2013 book, “Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart,” four generations can translate into a complicated workplace.

The benefits of a multigenerational workforce

Managing a department with just one or two consecutive generations working under the same roof might seem simpler. But it wouldn’t be as useful as having the distinct perspectives of 20- to 60-year-olds around the same table. Having a multigenerational team is also beneficial for customer service. Because your clients are multigenerational, your finance and accounting staff should be, too. A company is enriched when it’s comprised of team members with different perspectives, backgrounds and opinions.

Building a team plan that works for every generation

How can managers effectively lead and motivate four distinct generations in the workplace? It takes more planning to bring together such a diverse group, but the effort is worthwhile.

Here are four ways to foster a spirit of cooperation when you have a multigenerational workforce:

1. Institute mentoring and reverse mentoring programs

Knowledge sharing is not only a vital part of a business’ growth strategy, but it also helps with retention of younger staff. Eighteen- to 25-year-olds interviewed for the Generation Z report identified a manager’s mentoring ability as the second most popular trait in a leader. Gen Zers are eager to learn, receive feedback and move swiftly up the career ladder.

And junior finance and accounting associates are not just trainees. They have much to offer an organization. Having grown up with tech tools in their hands from adolescence and earlier, they possess a unique understanding of cloud-based computing and social media. They also prefer to blend, rather than compartmentalize, their professional and personal lives. Reverse mentoring allows them to share their youthful knowledge, promotes different approaches to problem solving and encourages mutual respect in the workplace.

2. Mix and match teams

If all entry-level accountants only worked with other entry-level accountants, they would have a hard time gaining a wider perspective of the organization and benefiting from the experience of more senior employees.

When possible, structure teams so there’s a blend of generations, tenure and abilities. Meetings, forums and brainstorming sessions are also occasions where you can encourage intergenerational collaboration. When you create an environment where employees of different ages and experience levels can interact in formal and informal ways, you promote teamwork and deepen professional relationships.

3. Foster a respectful environment

Each generation bears a bit of skepticism about working with colleagues older or younger than they are. The wider the generation gap, the greater the apprehension. The Generation Z study found that 21 percent of college-age respondents anticipated problems working with Gen Y, but that perception more than doubled to 45 percent when students were asked about working with baby boomers. The main concern is that older staff would treat them like kids and not take them seriously. Misunderstanding goes both ways, as workers in their 50s and 60s may feel as though they’re not as cool or clued in as recent graduates.

As a manager of several generations in the workplace, it’s up to you to set a tone of mutual respect. When junior accounting employees make a good suggestion, encourage their contributions. If you hear disparaging remarks related to age or experience level, gently correct the offenders.

4. Be flexible and open

Baby boomers prefer their training in moderation, the Generation Z study reports, while Gen Zers expect it to be ongoing. Gen Xers like regular and frequent feedback, yet Gen Yers want it on demand. What’s a manager to do?

The key to getting the best from all generations in the workplace is to adapt to your staff’s preferences and requirements. Management requires embracing different approaches to training and development as well. Newer hires may expect a more hands-on relationship with continuous feedback, while established team members might bristle at that type of intensive approach.

Institute a baseline of supervision, training and feedback, such as monthly operations meetings, quarterly training sessions and annual performance reviews. Then ramp up each element according to an individual’s needs.

Thinking about different generations in the workplace can help you adjust your management and communication style to bring out the best in each of your employees. When everyone feels like a valuable member of a team, regardless of their age or generation, your company will benefit from greater productivity, improved morale and lower turnover.

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