The oldest members of Generation Z turned 21 this year – which means that for the past four years, they’ve been gradually trickling into the workforce. And over the next four years, many of us (especially those working in large corporations) will experience a unique demographic phenomenon: four distinct generations, all within the same organization.
The need to adapt and respond to this tectonic shift will eventually be felt by all organizations, regardless of scale. Even smaller agencies and startups like Splash Effect – comprised mostly (if not entirely) of Generation Y professionals – will be affected. Coincidentally, our first Generation Z employee begins work today! Are we prepared to be intentionally inclusive? Yes. But will it be an easy to implement? No.
A common criticism I’ve received about my recent TEDx talk on managing millennials is my advocacy of a seemingly one-way relationship between employer and employee – a relationship in which older generations – Boomers (b. 1945-1964) and Generation X (b. 1961–1981) – should cater to the needs, behaviours, and expectations of younger generations – Generation Y (b. 1975-1995) and Generation Z (b. 1995–2015). And while I stand by my assertion that “the old guard” must adapt and respond to the aforementioned demographic phenomenon, I do believe that a more mutual and cooperative process is beneficial when it comes to navigating change. But the criticism being levelled against that particular angle of my talk is indicative of an understandable anxiety that is propped up on stereotypes. Unfortunately there’s also the inherent fear of losing power and relevance that plays into the reluctance to accommodate. But it’s not just old versus new – the misunderstanding and distrust seems to be blind-firing in every direction: Boomers tend to see Generation X and Generation Y as lacking discipline and focus; Generation Y sees Generation X and Boomers as resistant to change, dogmatic in their thinking, defensive, and lacking in creativity; Generation X sees Generation Y as arrogant; Generation Y sees Generation X as having poor problem-solving skills and being slow to respond; all the while, none of us know what to think of Generation Z.
What all generations should know, is that healthy relationships require reciprocity. So why should the relationships in tomorrow’s multi-generational workforce be any different? Rather than accentuating our differences, it’s time to understand what each generation in the multi-generational workforce wants (and why we should start giving it to them – from both the top-down, as well as the bottom-up). I’ve compiled below a few lesson I’ve learned in my career around the importance of communication and leadership to resolve conflict, as well as to improve productivity. These are lessons I’ve learned from former bosses, mentors, and through work experiences both as a contributor as well as a leader. As Splash Effect grows more diverse in terms of the age of its employees, here’s how I plan to leverage each generation’s strengths, while fostering collaboration:
- Start Strong. Diffuse any tension by expressing respect and admiration for the person whom you’re speaking with. Build a strong foundation by sharing a desire to achieve a mutual goal. Proactively reach across the table and develop alignment.
- Cringe Fast, Cringe Early. Lead difficult conversations with facts (eg. “While this design is good, it unfortunately didn’t meet the deadline. This is the third deadline you’ve missed this month.”) No generation is immune to the facts.
- Give Room To Breathe. If a colleague becomes defensive, step away from the situation, and circle back at a later time. Reassure them of your positive intentions, and allow them to express their concerns. Be patient, and welcome perspectives.
- Invite Dialogue. Be mindful of how meetings and interactions are facilitated. Encourage members from different generations to share their unique points of view. Don’t let a conversation be dominated by any one demographic. All opinions matter.
- Tailor Communication. Know your generation’s preferences. For example, Generation X tends to want information delivered formally and effectively. Generation Y, however, tends to want immediate feedback and reinforcement.
- Break Down Silos. Generation Y and Generation Z want information shared freely and transparently across the organization. Let older generations know that it’s not only okay to share — it’s vital to succession planning.
- Build Diverse Teams. When structuring teams, be intentional about including different ages, genders, cultures, etc. In time, diverse teams will learn to value and trust each other. Know that homogeneity can be quite counter-productive.
- Encourage Leadership Flexibility. Some generations want laissez-faire leaders, while others want a more involved leadership style. Allow your leaders to be fluid in their approach to leading others.
As leaders, we must stop trying to find universal solutions to individual problems.Each generation has their own needs, behaviours, and expectations. Nuance will be key when making the transition to a multi-generational workplace. And change ishappening. In my jaunt up the proverbial career ladder, I’ve been privy to the shift from a “command-and-control” style of management to a more inclusive leadership philosophy; I’ve seen workplace motivations shift from working at a reputable organization or making more money, towards working in environments that are more creative and innovative; I’ve experienced offices going from inflexible 9-5, Monday-Friday boiler room operations to places that are less structured, punctual, and linear. These are but some of the proper conditions that my generation, Generation Y, needs to succeed. But even though we now represent the largest demographic in the workforce, we have to think beyond than ourselves. Our experiences of feeling stifled by traditional organizations should make us want to craft more inclusive workplaces. As such I need to recognize that both the way in which our new 16 year-old intern works, as well as why he works, is likely different than the rest of my team.
I’ve had the privilege of working on complete opposite ends of the organizational spectrum: I’ve worked in hierarchies (military) and heterarchies (startups); I’ve worked in meritocracies (agencies) and democracies (unions). I’ve been both the youngest person on my team, as well as the oldest. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of these experiences, it’s this: navigating major change isn’t easy. The three-generation workplaces I cut my teeth at presented a wide array of challenges and opportunities. And I fully expect the four-generation workplaces of tomorrow to present even more challenges and opportunities in terms volume, frequency, and complexity. Therefore leaders at every level must help their organizations overcome potential challenges if they ever hope to leverage the full diversity of tomorrow’s workforce.
It behooves members of all generations to seek older and younger mentors to better acclimatize themselves to their unique realities. There is strength in our ability to tap into the different work styles, attitudes, perspectives, and skills that comprise a rich, diverse multi-generational workforce. I’m optimistic about what the future holds for all four generations that will work under the same roof (or at within the same Slack team).