Organisations worldwide have become cross-generational workplaces dominated by two groups – Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Generation Xers (1965 to 1980). Veterans (1922 to 1945) and Nexters (1980+) are fewer. Managed well, and without stereotyping, this generational diversity can enrich the workplace. But it can also challenge and frustrate managers striving to derive maximum productivity from all employees. Irrespective of your vintage, here are some suggestions to improve the approaches you adopt…

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1. Familiarise yourself with generations’ characteristics.

Veterans. Although most of this group may have retired, their presence – particularly at the top of the corporate ladder and as customers – demands that you learn to work with them.

Baby Boomers. These are characterised by ambition, loyalty, and employment for life – usually in the one company. They believe in process: that there is a right way of doing things to achieve the desired outcome. Their attitudes toward the office, family, and themselves, have unquestionably shaped the workplace as we know it.

GenXers, the children of those who were too young to fight in World War 2, were the first to experience the major consequences of the social revolution known as women’s liberation . Xers ‘work to live’, not ‘live to work’.

Nexters – Generation Y, Generation dot-com, or Echo Boomers – though barely in the workforce, this confident, achievement-oriented group is demonstrating goal focus, optimism, and technical know-how.

2. Communicate to all groups.

Ignoring generational difference will not work. Take time to communicate with the different groups, indicating your understanding of each generation’s idiosyncrasies – values, icons, and language. This will involve considerable research on your part. There is no short cut. Xers, the major grouping, for example, have been brought up with e-mail and respond positively to memos with bullet points. Xers usually see the most well-intentioned pep talks – the ones that can work so well for Baby Boomers – as insincere. Xers place value on office layout, the quality of technology, and more-relaxed dress codes.

3. Earn their trust and respect.

The Baby Boomer generation was taught to respect its elders. Generation Xers came of age during the scandals of Watergate, the Iran-Contra, and soaring divorce rates. Napsters were raised on the Clinton-Lewinsky ‘soapie’. Xers have also observed that work is no guarantee of survival: termination can happen without warning, logic, or apology. Don’t tell groups to respect you – give them reasons why they should.

4. Set clear expectations.

Many Xers were raised in single-parent households and have learnt to rely on themselves. Let them come to you with questions, rather than micromanaging them. ‘Forbes’ Magazine labelled Gen X ‘the most entrepreneurial generation in American history.’ Napsters have received abundant encouragement to enable their achievement-orientation. Give them the task; explain the outcome you are seeking; provide the wherewithal required to achieve the outcome; then get out of the way and let them get on with it!

5. Demonstrate flexibility in your workplace.

Flexibility is more than work hours, more-relaxed dress codes, and just the right amount of supervision. It also means you’ll need to:

  • Increase the levels of autonomy when people demonstrate their readiness for it.
  • Vary your leadership style according to the situation.
  • Rely more on personal power than positional power.
  • Adapt or change policies when better options become clear.
  • Manage individuals into teams for particular assignments.
  • Demonstrate a balance between a concern for people and a concern for task.
  • Work at gaining employees’ trust.

6. Ensure up-to-date technology.

Generation Xers, reared on television video games and computers, consider that having the best technology available on their desk is as good as having a corner office. Napsters are even more technically adept: technology has permeated their education and recreation.

7. Provide consistent feedback.

All generational groups want honest, constructive feedback. For example, Xers want to hear from you almost daily about how they can do better – some authorities suggesting the lack of attention they received in their formative years as a reason for this.

8. Provide appropriate recognition.

Many Xers resent the more visible, expensive recognition that Baby Boomers usually respond positively to. Napsters generally have greater idealism than Xers. Both groups value support for their personal and professional development, even if their personal development does not seem to be directly related to the work context.

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