From style to substance: Bridging the generation gap

It used to be so simple in the workplace. You had your old timers and your young bloods. They often sneered at each other but the work got done. Today’s workplace is so much more complicated.

Traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials must find a way to work together despite having very different values, perspectives, styles and preferences.

When we move beyond labels and consider our job as leaders, understanding the motivations that drive individuals becomes important. Fortunately there are some key leadership skills that motivate every generation:

Coaching, or ‘the ask vs. tell approach’

It doesn’t matter what age they are, forcing answers on people doesn’t work well.

Instead, successful leaders use powerful questions to help employees arrive at important understandings on their own. This approach works well across the generational divide because people of all ages want to feel seen, heard and included.

A study conducted by Bersin & Associates showed that organizations with senior leaders who coach effectively frequently improve their business results by 21 percent compared to those who never coach.

Explaining the why

Employees at every stage need to connect their jobs to the greater good. You can’t expect people to perform at their highest levels without ensuring they understand the context driving their roles.

While it’s not necessary to explain every single decision, powerful leaders take it upon themselves to make sure they communicate the big picture as often as possible. Clearly defining the importance of every department leads to more engaged employees with higher loyalty to leaders and companies.

Holding people accountable

Being direct and articulate in your expectations of managers and employees is critical to consistently attaining goals. It doesn’t matter what year you were born, vagueness is the enemy of greatness.

Don’t just suggest something; let people know directly what goal, project or task needs to be completed. Assume nothing. Clarify and gain agreement that expectations are understood.

It is often best to ask the person you are directing to state back the assignment to ensure everyone is on the same page. While this approach may seem time consuming at first, it saves time down the road.

Following up with authentic recognition

Despite being busy, skilled leaders pay attention and acknowledge when someone meets their goals. Appreciating a job well-done in the moment is often a more sustainable motivator than a bonus.

Traditionalists crave appreciation for their wisdom, baby boomers want acknowledgement for their hard work, Gen Xers want to know they’re producing results and millennials are used to positive feedback, seeking it regularly to feel like they’re on the right track.


Today, effective leadership is less about style and more about substance. Become a leader who can nimbly shift among the various generations by emphasizing the commonalities in various stages of life.


Gail A. Froelicher is the CEO and Leadership Adviser of Kinetic Insights LLC, a 10-year-old leader/team effectiveness and culture development firm with advisers who help clients unleash their greatness. Gail is dedicated to strengthening the impact of leaders and transforming individuals to focused and aligned teams. When she’s not working with high-level executives, she serves on many local nonprofit boards. She is the co-founder of the Women’s Council of Central Ohio.