Leading Across Generations

Generational differences are real.  This is an opportunity to engage the now four generations in the workplace through inclusive leadership.

Research indicates that Millennials will be 75% of our workforce by 2025, and with this, organizations are struggling to engage top talent across generations.  Often, with leaders I coach, they ask, “how can we change the millennials to be more motivated, and less entitled?” to which I respond, “they are far less likely to change for us; they are far more likely to change us.”  There are so many wonderful traits this next generation brings to the workforce:  a genuine passion for making a positive impact on the world, a desire to work to live rather than live to work, and an uncanny ability to find solutions to complex problems.  Yet, there are some distinct behaviors and expectations that do not always align with organizational values and processes.

The Pew Research Center outlines generations by birth year range as follows:

  • Gen Z:  Before 1997
  • Millennials: 1981-1997
  • Generation X: 1965 to 1980
  • Baby Boomers: 1946 to 1964

Much attention has been placed on Baby Boomer and Millennial alignment, as they represent two ends of the spectrum, and have the most differences between them.  However, Generation X is the next generation of leaders, and represents the majority of small business owners.  They are a force to be reckoned with as well, yet often blend in with the Baby Boomers or identify with the Millennials as the pendulum swings.  Humorously, at a conference I was at recently, the speaker talked about Generation X being overwhelmed by the Baby Boomers.  Due to their sheer size, Baby Boomers made Generation X into mini Baby Boomers.  Partially true, Generation X seems to be amicable and the most flexible to each of the other larger generations.

In order to effectively lead an organization today, leaders must inspire and engage across all generations.  In this post, you will learn:

  • Understanding how “coming of age” experiences shape generations
  • Learning how to “flex” your leadership style to meet the needs of each generation
  • Aligning cultural values consistent with generational expectations

Newsletter Sign-up

Understanding how “coming of age” experiences shape generations

Coming of age experiences, primarily when we are between the ages of 18 and 24, have a profound impact on our personal values and belief systems.  It is during these formative years that our brains become hard wired.  Close your eyes and recall the world events, political climate, and experiences you had personally during this time in your life.  For me, born in 1982, I recall 9/11 and the World Trade Center attack, the Presidential election of 2000, and the Dot.com boom and bust of the early 2000’s.  These events shaped who I am in a profoundly deep and unchangeable way.  I will never forget turning on the television on September 11th and the fear I felt to live in a world where this was possible.  It had an impact on me as a human.  When one event can change a country, and how we view our safety in a single moment, it has a ripple effect.  I have wanted to be a positive force in the world and value family and personal time because you never know how quickly it all can change.

For Baby Boomers, these events are often the JFK assassination, the MLK “I have a dream” speech, or landing on the moon.  For Generation X, many recall the Challenger shuttle explosion, the Cold War, or Princess Diana’s death, just to name a few.  In addition to my examples, millennials also cite the 2008 financial crisis, and President Obama’s election.  For Baby Boomers, the inspirational leaders and untimely deaths represent consequences to speaking up, and landing on the moon signifies hard work paying off.  For Generation X, the tension of the Cold War, coupled with the tragedies of Princess Diana or the astronauts signaled the need for independence, yet slow to trust.  For millennials, they saw the greed of the banks and rise of terrorism, along with the 24-hour news cycle priming fear as a return to human ideals and living with purpose.

These experiences shape beliefs and behaviors in the work place every day.

Learning how to “flex” your leadership style to meet the needs of each generation

Now that we know there are good intentions and reasons for each generation’s behaviors, let’s talk about how we can “flex” to each generation’s needs.  At a very general level, Baby Boomers care about hard work, structure and process, and respect for their expertise and experience.  They grew up in post-World War America that resembled the military with a formal chain of command, leaders that led with power, with rewards for loyalty and hard work.  Contrast that with Generation X, the first generation to experience both parents working, also known as the “Latch Key” generation, they value independence and flexible work environments.  Millennials, raised by the helicopter parents, are used to instant feedback, 9th place ribbon recognition, and a genuine belief that they can improve the world around them.

Knowing what we know about these generations and the world they experienced, speaking to them in their language is powerful.  That means, for Baby Boomers, recognizing their expertise and experience, giving them structure and process, and demonstrating a strong work ethic, goes a long way.  Conversely, for Generation X, getting out of their way, letting them be coaches and mentors to employees, and trusting them to work flexibly is empowering.  Millennials need real-time feedback, not wanting to wait until the end of the year for their performance review, coaching constantly, and opportunities to collaborate with emphasis on the why behind their work and how the work they do makes an impact.

Aligning cultural values consistent with generational expectations

What makes each generation tick is different.  Learning to tweak your style as a manager makes a difference.  When people feel you are speaking their language, they will meet you in the middle and speak a bit of your language in return.  To create lasting positive change for generational diversity, it is critical that cultural values are consistent with current employees’ expectations.  As expectations, beliefs, and behaviors change in organizations, so should the cultural values.  Cultural values are the non-negotiable behaviors that are expected of a team. They are the hiring criteria; they are the firing criteria.  When someone fits or does not fit with the team, chances are it is a lack of cultural alignment.

I work with teams to define their values, and facilitated a Generation X and Millennial team discussion recently to define their values as: “fuzzy feels,” “the one who is all in,” “circle of trust,” “light bulbs,” and the “sparkle rule.”  They further defined their values with behaviors to clearly explain what is expected as non-negotiable behaviors for their team.  This exercise should be revisited at least every few years to ensure values are reflective of our current generational mix and aligned with the current team’s behaviors, motivations, and beliefs.  Asking “how do we behave?” and “what is important for our team?” drives a discussion where values can be updated and refined to align with the current team.

So, how will you lead across generations?

If you liked this post, join our free online workshop August 3 to learn more about Leading Across Generations.

#generationalleadership #communication #leadership #generations #diversity