Stop over-focusing on and over-managing millennials

Yes, we all know the workforce is changing. But if your organization prioritizes age over ideas, it’s time for a change. Here are ways to create an environment where people of all ages — and the organization — can thrive. 

Today’s workforce includes more adults between the ages of 25 and 34 than any other age-delineated group. It’s projected that by 2025, millennials will represent about 75 percent of American employees. We’re far enough into this era of Baby Boomer retirement and the concurrent onslaught of young professionals to see how this transformation is changing the cultural fiber of organizations. That’s not a new storyline. What warrants discussion is what it means to lead an organization that has three or more generations working side-by-side.

There are many versions of the lists highlighting differences between generations. We see variants like the expectation of in-person interactions (Baby Boomers), an entrepreneurial penchant (Gen X), and work as a means to an end (Gen Y). Yet, the real takeaway is that trying to manage for disparities within a multigenerational workforce is not a path to success.

In a diverse work environment, great leadership is not so much about managing differences as it is about creating an environment that allows for the differences.

There may be no more evergreen leadership statement than the one made by the ancient philosopher Terence, “I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me.” Everyone in your organization wants to know that their work has purpose and value. It just may be that older generations are less likely to ask because they were raised to pay their dues, as opposed to millennials who are part of a sharing economy that thrives on feedback.

Here’s how leaders can build a context in which similarities and differences can successfully coexist:

  1. Share a set of active core values — such as speaking truth to power, transparency and sharing.
  2. Add social communication channels as a source of information for your people and organization.
  3. Connect authentically within the organization, and publicly live out the organization’s core values.
  4. Connect on a human-to-human (H2H) level through vulnerability coaching and mentoring.
  5. Build an environment that embraces perspectives, differences, and contributions regardless of the source.

As we work with younger members of the workforce, we hear a real desire and intent to lead. They are disinclined to accept the tenet that age equals authority. They are smart, confident and willing to dig in, learn and contribute. With this mindset shaping so much of the new economy, even the term “experience” has been disrupted. It’s defined less by the time you’ve spent doing something and more by the process of participating and sharing.

The new wave of organizational leadership requires us to engage with the ideas and passions living behind every desk and computer. Not all will be great, but some will be. By listening and offering feedback in an open construct, we have the opportunity to tap into an incredible source of innovation.

Deb Westphal is CEO of Toffler Associates, a strategic/advisory firm helping the world’s largest organizations architect a better future.