Being Effective in a Multi-Generational Workplace
By Cathy Bamji
There is an abundance of articles and books highlighting the various generations in current society. They cover everything from how each age group thinks, to their strengths and weaknesses, including perceptions and misperceptions. This is valuable information. However, in a multi-generational workplace, it is more important to understand where people come from and how they got to where they are, as well as their circumstances, backgrounds, and experiences. Practitioners cannot obtain this knowledge from a poll or a set of cross-sectional interviews. What is needed is more fundamental. Multi-generational workers need relationship building opportunities.
Where to Start?
People are products of their environment and upbringing, which in turn shape their way of thinking, working, communicating, and processing information (Crawford, 2018). The following influence each person and community:
Wars, Won or Lost – While tragic, World War II was viewed as an honorable war. Returning soldiers were met with parades and jobs were plenty. During the Vietnam era, there were protests, draft dodgers, anger, and shame. There were no parades and no celebrations. Still, other people had no direct experience of war. They were raised in peace-time with a solid economy and plenty of opportunity. Then 9/11 happened. These experiences shaped opinions about country, trust, and authority.
Moments in History – The Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., along with Nixon and Watergate, rocked the stability of U.S. society. Global changes like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Perestroika, and the end of the Cold War gave way to growing terrorism and the rise of nationalism around the world. These experiences fueled tension and unease.
Economic Changes – Running the gambit from the energy crisis, the housing collapse, corporate layoffs, increasing globalization, and climate change, economic changes have affected job availability, career paths, income streams, and education. With fewer job opportunities, young professionals stay in college longer and incur debt in the hopes of greater possibilities later. Older workers stay in their jobs longer for fear of running out of money to cover healthcare and family needs.
Technology – The speed at which technology has evolved is undeniable. In less than fifty years, computers, telephones, television, and energy innovations completely changed the what, where, and how of communication, transportation, entertainment, and work performance.
Societal Norms – Shifting attitudes towards a wide variety of social and political norms led to divergent values. Significant differences now exist on the role of government, causes for climate change, social media, and marriage (Parker, Graf & Igielnic, 2019). These shifts, coupled with the growing disparity in income and equality, created an environment ripe for miscommunication and conflict.
Demographics – Global migration patterns, increased education, and the cost of living changes have fueled an expanded workforce. According to the Pew Research Center (Geiger & Parker, 2018), women are now more likely to be college-educated than men. While male labor rates are falling, rates for women have steadily grown from 34% in 1950 to 57% in 2017. The workforce is also more ethnically diverse with an increase in foreign-born and first-generation workers (Lopez, Bialik & Radford, 2018) and a wider age range of employees.
Depending on their perspective, practitioners may view these changes and experiences as positive contributions to knowledge and experience or threats. They affect both individuals and the institutions in which they work. Each experience contributes to shifts in perspectives, possibilities, and work preferences. No longer can one rely on the past to predict the future. For example, consider the career paths of different generations. Older generations defined a traditional career path many years ago. However, as demonstrated in the chart below, the traditional career track is no longer the only path to success. There are more educated individuals in the mix who stayed in school longer and who skip a few steps. There are older managers who want to slow their pace or switch careers, opting to step back a few steps to accomplish what they desire. A number of workers from all generations now operate outside the previously defined tradition.
Inherent in this mix of life and work experiences is the forgotten truth that “we are who we were when.”
Fostering Understanding and Appreciation
With this mindset, practitioners let go of the assumptions about age and generations and lean into a place of understanding and appreciation. Effectiveness lies not in generational explanations and excuses, but in building relationships. Career practitioners encourage this by modeling, recommending, or teaching the following:
- Spend time understanding what drives personal behavior and decisions. Consider clients’ personal values and motivations. This may seem trivial and time-consuming but is truly the best way to take charge of choices and make conscious changes in behavior. Increase awareness of language used both verbally and in print to ensure clarity. Explore pre-conceived notions and avoid making assumptions about motivations and behavior (Crawford, 2018).
- Expand learning through open and honest dialogue. Doing this grows the acceptance of others and creates understanding and appreciation of individual contributions. Fill project teams with a diverse group of individuals. This provides opportunities for team building, the exchange of ideas, and greater understanding (Lipman, 2017).
- Leverage the learning. Through collaborative engagement, asking questions, and mentoring, create an environment that encourages curiosity and love of learning. “Reverse or reciprocal mentoring programs” (Knight, 2014, n.p.) provide opportunities for individuals to gain wisdom and experience, breakdown barriers and create new perspective.
As Dr. Stephen Covey (2003) teaches, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” (p. 100). It is a disservice to workers and organizations when assumptions and generalizations are made about entire groups of people. Personal and organizational effectiveness is achieved through intentional engagement. With each encounter, project or conversation workers gain familiarity which in turn fuels acceptance and understanding.
Covey, S. (2003). The seven habits of highly effective people. Retrieved from https://www.franklincovey.com/the-7-habits/habit-5.html
Crawford, H. (2018, May 5). A guide to managing multiple generations in the workplace [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/articles/2018-05-01/a-guide-to-managing-multiple-generations-in-the-workplace
Geiger, A. W. & Parker, K. (2018, March 15). For women’s history month, a look at gender gains – and gaps – in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/15/for-womens-history-month-a-look-at-gender-gains-and-gaps-in-the-u-s/
Knight, R. (2014, September 25). Managing people from 5 generations. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/09/managing-people-from-5-generations
Lipman, V. (2017, January 25). How to manage generational differences in the workplace [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2017/01/25/how-to-manage-generational-differences-in-the-workplace/#1b3f1ff34cc4
Lopez, G., Bialik, K. & Radford, J. (2018, November 30). Key findings about U.S. immigrants. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/11/30/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/
Parker, K & Graf, N & Igielnik, R. (2019, January 17). Generation Z looks a lot like millennials on key social and political issues. Retrieved from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/01/17/generation-z-looks-a-lot-like-millennials-on-key-social-and-political-issues/
Wall Street Journal How to Guide. (2009, April 7). How to manage different generations. Retrieved from http://guides.wsj.com/management/managing-your-people/how-to-manage-different-generations/#
Cathy Bamji, BCC, GCDF is a certified Life & Career Development Coach focused on helping people in transition, from students moving out into the world to people facing mid-career and next-career challenges. Additionally, Cathy volunteers her time facilitating Adult Bereavement Groups through CaringMatters, a non-profit in Montgomery County MD. She can be reached at LiveLife@cathybamji.com www.cathybamji.com