Bridging the gap Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

One of the key issues facing managers today is how to handle the workplace’s generational gap. This is the first time in history that a workplace has members from four different generations at once, all working side-by-side. Each generation is different, and conflicts will ensue if you try to manage all of them with a one-size-fits-all style.

Barry Tolbert, a faculty member at University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus, breaks employees into four main generational groups: traditionalists (born before 1942), baby boomers (1943-1960), Generation X (1961-1981) and millenials (1982-2002).

“If you are a supervisor, you really have to understand these generational differences,” says Tolbert. “Supervising a millennial requires different levels of feedback and a different approach than supervising a baby boomer or Generation Xer.”

Smart Business spoke with Tolbert about multigenerational management strategies and how to improve intergenerational communication in the workplace.

What do managers need to know about the different generations’ perspectives on work?

Each generation has its typical characteristics. You may find that younger generations seem to lack a certain element of respect for the status quo that is found in older generations. Generation Xers and millenials are wired differently — they may be working here, but this is not their life. By contrast, a traditionalist’s mindset is ‘I’m here to work. I will support the company; therefore the company will take care of me.’ The baby boomers are optimistic but have more of a love/hate relationship with authority. They believe teamwork is critical to success, so they adapt well to team concepts.

How should supervisors handle the different needs employees from different generations will have?

As a manager or supervisor, you need to be aware of what type of feedback works best for your employees. Should you give an employee a pat on the back, written feedback or just leave him or her alone unless something goes wrong? It depends. Traditionalists are happy getting feedback once a year. Just provide documentation of how they are doing.

Baby boomers want more feedback. They may mistake silence for disapproval, so they need to know what they are doing right and wrong. If you just tell them they’re doing a good job and leave it at that, they’re going to take that as disapproval. They are open to constructive criticism.

Generation Xers, however, figure no news is good news. Unless you tell them they’re doing it wrong, they’ll assume they’re doing it right. And, millenials need positive feedback moment by moment. They need to know if they’re on the right track. Part of this comes from their connection to the Information Age, where everything is instantaneous. They need to know now, so they can move on to something else.

How can employers minimize workplace conflicts between generations?

Look at what all the generations have in common. Start from that common perspective and branch out from there. For instance, they all consider family as a top priority. Whether you are 25 years old or a member of an older generation with grandchildren, family is still important.

Trust and respect are still as valuable now as they were 60 years ago. Everyone wants to feel like they can trust the person next to them, and everyone expects respect.

Lastly, as a whole, everyone wants to strengthen the particular organization they are in. We all like to know we are working to create a better company. Americans by our very nature don’t like being on the losing side, so we try to strengthen the particular organization we are in.

What strategies can be used to create a strong multigenerational workplace?

Education and training are needed at all levels. You can’t assume because someone has been there a long time — either as manager or employee — that they are up to par on how to deal with anyone at all levels. Sometimes we get into a certain corner as an employee, manager or supervisor, and we don’t step out of that corner long enough to see what changes have happened.

In the business environment, change is an everyday thing. It’s human nature to dread change. Even though you’ve been with a company for years, that doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to deal with the newest generation or even your own generation.

How can you improve communication within generations?

For traditionalists, value their experiences. Appreciate what they’ve done. Sometimes you may have to listen to those old war stories. There is a wealth of knowledge there. Also, appreciate their dedication. It takes a lot these days to be at a company 25 years.

For Xers, get to the point. Don’t beat around the bush. Sometimes they will get into ‘what’s in it for me’ mode. If that’s the case, you may want to already have that question answered before you come to them.

For baby boomers, show respect. Give them your full attention. If you’re addressing them, let them know you are focused on them. Focus on relationships and results in your conversations with them.

For millenials, challenge them. Their minds are active 24-7 and they like to combine work and play. Ask their opinions; I guarantee they have them. Lastly, encourage mentorship. Many times, your traditionalists or baby boomers can fill that slot.