Career Development

Finding (and Playing to) Strengths in a Multigenerational Workplace

With three generations in the workplace at the same time, each with their own distinct world view, many professionals are asking, what can we do to all just get along?

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” -Stephen R. Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People)

The answer relies on our willingness to learn about one another and to appreciate what we individually and collectively bring to the table. Each generation has its strengths:

Baby boomers are known for their deliberate and steady approach. They have climbed the corporate ladder rung by rung, taking stock in where they’ve been and where they’re going, and reinforcing their strong work ethic. They’ve experienced company loyalty and had that loyalty taken away and proven themselves resourceful through tremendously disruptive corporate change. They’ve spent most of their careers without computers, which was crucial in shaping their collaborative communication style. Boomers are mentally focused and rely on their mental toughness to work through a situation.

Gen X-ers also have a strong work ethic; studying their craft while taking on tasks again and again until they have a sense of mastery. They are capable communicators and their people skills are excellent; they respect the corporate culture and don’t tolerate drama. Like baby boomers, they prioritize and stay focused. Gen X-ers are great problem-solvers and innovate quite easily – their generation was the first to embrace the tech boom in the workforce and they have learned how to navigate the old and the new from that.

Gen Y, or millennials, have a high-risk tolerance at work. They make bold moves and watch what happens. Millennials value speed; they move projects forward quickly and look for immediate results. They look at everything on their plate and want to move everything forward, including their careers. They are decisive; they quickly discern what’s a waste of their time and what’s worth it. Millennials are the first generation to be brought up with technology, so they are used to getting input from multiple sources and having immediate access to information. Unlimited access to information also means millennials have the potential to learn more quickly than any previous generation simply because the speed and breadth of technology supports it (think Kahn Academy and Lynda.com).

With these three different types of experiences, world views, work ethics and communication styles, many professionals are left bewildered and don’t know how to navigate the workplace dynamic.

The key to achieving a harmonious multigenerational workplace? Play to those strengths.

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” -Henry Ford

While much has been written and videoed in the media to vilify millennials, it’s not productive or even true that they don’t have a work ethic, are egocentric, or have “shiny-object syndrome.”

Gen X-ers are not “silent observers” of corporate wrongs (big or small) nor are they looking for a shortcut , as other generations may accuse them, but indeed they may be the most self-sufficient of all generations.

Baby boomers are not unwelcoming to change, nor do they resist using technology.

Many people see the heart of the issue being millennials blaming other generations for their challenges in the job market, the high cost of living, and student loans. In a recent survey by Survey Monkey, millennials were asked this question: Have the baby boomers made things better or worse for your generation? The results were not surprising. Of those surveyed, 51% said things are worse. Only 13% said they were better. (Inc.com) To me this indicates a deep divide. However, I do believe it can be repaired.

All of these so-called negative traits and misconceptions of each generation can be turned into a positive if they are better understood, respected and managed properly.

“None of us is as smart as all of us.” -Ken Blanchard

The biggest issue that comes up in my coaching sessions and at lectures is the pace of work. With millennials wanting to push everything forward at a pace that often does not make sense for Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, tensions can build up around the pros and cons of speed and urgency. Some may see it as swift and decisive action, while others may see it as impulsive and unprepared.

How will it all evolve? Will millennials need to slow down at some point – either because they can’t keep up the pace or because senior management won’t tolerate it?

While no one knows the answer, I’d like to offer that there is more to this race than speed. Millennials should take a look at their more experienced counterparts and notice the quality, thoughtfulness, and skill they bring to the project. Managers of millennials might want to encourage a mindset of “marathon, not a sprint,” providing a balance of long and short-term tasks that can satisfy the need for speed offset by acquiring the skill of mastery of a task or skill set.

Gen X-ers and baby boomers must be open to the idea that speed does not necessarily compromise quality. Inefficiency and sloppy work should not be accepted, but moving ahead faster may be exactly the right move at times. The idea of “fail fast” and “iterate, iterate, iterate” are both ways to get the best solution in place expeditiously. This may appeal to the Baby Boomers inherent competitive side and the Gen X-ers need to innovate.

Can everyone learn directly from each other? Could mentoring work? Is mentoring even a possibility? Yes, it is, reports Fortune Magazine. Almost two-thirds of X-ers (62%) say they “want to be mentors, and 40% see themselves as teachers. That’s more than any other generation,” (a survey from the Addison Group, Fortune.com).

Baby boomers are willing to share their experience too, and are doing so as they ease into retirement. Many companies now offer a flex schedule for boomers that are phasing out of work and some of that flex time is often spent mentoring the new employees. A formal mentoring relationship like this is a win for everyone, but informal mentoring is beneficial too.

Everyone has a piece of the puzzle in workplace dynamics. No one group is completely right or wrong, especially when it comes to a multigenerational convergence in the office. Everyone has to play to their individual strengths and generational strengths, and know that together they will create a stronger company culture.

 

Julia Holian of Holian Associates is a Career Strategist and Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach based in the Bay Area. She helps career-focused professionals pinpoint what that want to do with their career, then showcase their talents in order to move up in their chosen field or re-enter the job market. Julia leverages her extensive leadership experience in executive management, business development, team building and recruiting to help her clients navigate the nuances of asking for new projects or a promotion, networking, interviewing, creating a job search plan, negotiating compensation, and successfully assimilating into a new role. Learn more about Julia on our website and at  www.LinkedIn.com/in/JuliaHolian.