HR Leads Business

Jun 21, 2019 | Jeremy Harper

4 Ways Managers Can Improve Intergenerational Relationships at Work

Multigenerational workplaces are the norm across nearly every industry and business, with five generations working side by side in the labor force for the first time in American history.

Thirty-five percent of American workers are millennials, making them the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. The total number of millennials (56 million) has surpassed the members of Generation X (53 million) and baby boomers (41 million) who are either employed or looking for work. The post-millennial generation — those born after 1996, referred to as Generation Z — are also rapidly entering the workforce.

This unprecedented mix of age groups in the workplace presents a host of challenges for organizations that have the potential to negatively affect productivity and engagement in profound ways.

Managers must navigate very real and often complex intergenerational differences to succeed in the rapidly evolving modern marketplace. These four approaches can help managers thrive in the multigenerational office.

Communicate Expectations

Cara Silletto, president and chief retention officer at Crescendo Strategies, says her No. 1 piece of advice for managers trying to navigate the multigenerational waters is to communicate their expectations.

“New hires can't read the managers' minds and they don't know ‘how it's always been done,’ ” Silletto says. “Instead of judging younger workers with comments like ‘they should know better’ or ‘that's just common sense,’ managers can be more effective if they clearly explain to staff what they want, what they don't want and why things should be done that way.”

Embrace Your Curiosity

Dealing with the different ideas and approaches with a multigenerational staff can either be challenging or an opportunity to look at everything differently and foster innovation. The key is curiosity, says executive coach and author Kathy Taberner.

When managers are faced with employees with different points of view on how things should be completed, what’s important or who should do what, they can often be closed off to any way but their own, Taberner says.
“When we begin to listen to each other, seek to understand the various ways of approaching anything, innovation can occur,” she says. “A manager who has the courage to be open, non-judging, and ask open questions creates a workplace culture that is just that: open and non-judging.”

Foster Mentoring Across Generations

A flexible approach to mentoring allows each generation to learn something from each other, says Gina Curtis, executive recruiting manager for JMJ Phillip Group. That means knowledge sharing doesn’t always have to be more-senior employees mentoring younger generations.

Reverse mentoring, where older executives are paired with and mentored by younger employees on topics such as technology and social media, can present real value for your organization. Likewise, millennials and subsequent generations can benefit from learning how to work as a team player and build stronger relationships with peers.

“Leveraging people’s strengths can allow for the entire team to feel like they are contributing and being recognized for their skills,” Curtis says. “People of different generations may have a better respect for each other’s work once they see what the others are capable of.”

Encourage Empathy

Somi Arian, producer and director of the documentary “The Millennial Disruption," says the key to resolving intergenerational differences in the workplace is understanding their root causes — and fostering empathy and understanding about those factors.

For example, when millennials and members of Generation Z use digital technologies, she says, they often have a measure of fluency and confidence that may lead them to conclude they don't need senior colleagues to guide them. “Now, of course, we know that knowledge does not equal wisdom,” Arian says. “But the senior management in companies often forget that to millennials this distinction is not obvious. That's where things go wrong.”

Senior employees often wonder why millennials behave that way, she says, and millennials are often oblivious to the offense they cause. Arian says her first word of advice for companies is that "the understanding and empathy should come from the seniors first,” because they have experienced both today’s digital world and the pre-digital era. “They know the difference between knowledge and wisdom,” she says. “Millennials don't.” Arian says the solution is empathy, training and communication.