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How to manage a multi-generation workforce


By Paul Russell, co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London 

Like it or not, your generation largely defines your values and beliefs in the workplace. A generation is a group of people born around the same time who experienced the same cultural, political, economic and historic moments. It is these experiences that bond them together and form their ethos towards life. Transport the generation to the workplace, and these values and beliefs translate to work and how they want to be led. 

That’d be easy enough to contemplate if we had one generation at a time in the workplace, but todays diverse workplaces, even in small businesses, can be a mix of hard-working baby boomers with a dash of cynical generation X and a helping of balance-seeking generation Y. Oh, and not forgetting the newly arrived generation Z.

So, as a leader of a multi-generational team, do you go for the one-size-fits-all approach and let the different generations adapt or should you be the one doing the adapting? 

Nowadays, most leaders aspire to be transformational leaders. The type of leader who is able to transform goals and aspirations, who is visionary and inspires others. Yet as much as transformational leadership is about articulating a shared vision of the future, it is also about attending to differences. It follows then that the leader needs to understand how a particular generation thinks, what motivates them, what doesn’t, their work-related goals, and why they even work at all.

Baby boomers

 Baby boomers were born sometime around 1946 and 1964. A traditional pattern of working would be expected by boomers, as they are willing to work hard and are strong team players. This ethos that work comes first can cause friction with other generations, as boomers can view them as less committed. 

This generation also expect a lot of their leaders and for them honesty is the most important characteristic a leader should have. This generation expect stability in their role, and a relatively hierarchical structure. Studies also suggest that the older and more experienced you become, the more innovative within your role, the less you would require or expect transformational leadership. 

Generation X

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1976, are said to be more ‘me-oriented’ and cynical than their predecessors. For them, work is not the centre of their world, and they want their leader to create change. They are looking for a more informal approach to work. 

The old top-down approach to leadership won’t appeal to this generation, who see collaboration as integral to leading, and expect leadership to be more passive than the previous generation. But, like the previous generation, they still believe in the power of the team and peer-to-peer collaboration will be important. 

Generation Y

Generation Y, born around 1977 to 1995, demand more from their leaders. Their preferred leadership style is transformative and they are not scared to challenge a leader that they feel is not, in their eyes, fulfilling the leadership role. 

The most marked difference with generation Y though, also known as millennials, is in their attitude to work-life balance, with a strong preference for flexible jobs and a mindset that a career is not the principal motivator. Studies with this generation suggest that millennials are more individualistic, even more narcissistic, and like both structure and praise.  

Generation Z

Then there is generation Z, the 1996 and onwards cohort who are the social media generation. From a generation where technology is innate, they expect information to be freely available and this applies to how they are led too. Studies suggest that unlike the previous generation, generation Z are less dependent upon their leaders and more self-reliant. 

The benefit of insight into the values and beliefs of different generations is that it allows the leader to acknowledge different perspectives and attitudes. What could be considered as rigidity or aversion to change can be viewed differently if considered through the lens of the boomer generation. 

Or, an apparent lack of commitment to the organisation could be the generation Y desire for work-life balance. With understanding, leaders can appreciate the diversity of perspectives that a diverse multi-generational team can offer and this will, ultimately, make them better leaders of people.