Quiet the Generational Noise in the Workplace

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Business writers have published horror stories about the lack of cohesiveness in the global workplace due to the unprecedented reality of having four distinct generational groups in the workplace at one time. To add fuel to the fire, here comes Generation Z, making a fifth entry. If we are having mixed results with four generations in the workplace, what kind of havoc can five bring?

According to data provided by the HayGroup in the Thought Paper, Managing A Multi-Generational Workforce: The Myth vs. The Realities, written by Tania Lennon, the following breakdown was shared about the differences in generations in the current workforce:

  • Traditionalists: 1928-1944     Value authority and top-down management approach; hard working; ‘be heroic’; “make do without.”
  • Baby Boomers: 1945-1964     Expect some degree of deference to their opinions; workaholics; ‘be anything you want to be’; eternal youth-retirement is WORD?                           .
  • Generation X:  1965-1979      Comfortable with authority; want to be listened to; will work as hard as needed; ‘don’t count on it’; ‘take care of yourself’; importance of work-life balance.
  • Generation Y: 1980-1994       Respect must be earned. ‘You are special’; ‘achieve now’; technology savvy; goal oriented; “Slacker generation”.
  • Generation Z: 1995+               Many traits still to emerge. Digital natives, fast decision makers, highly connected.

 (Tolbize, 2008)

In her book Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground (Jossey-Bass), research scientist Jennifer J. Deal claims that generational differences in the workplace amount to personal miscommunication and misunderstanding. It’s classic Big Man on Campus Syndrome: who has influence vs. who does not.

The generations have more in common than most analysts suggest. Deal came up with seven areas that all generations in the workplace before Generation Z have in common. Generation Z was not part of her seven-year research of 3,000 corporate leaders because they were either children or unborn at the time of the research. The following is a list of Deal’s findings:

  • All generations have similar values. Family is a prime concern for all.
  • Everyone wants respect. Respect is defined differently among the generations.
  • Leaders must be trustworthy. Transparency in organizations helps with this perception.
  • Nobody likes change. The effects of change are unsettling, whether positive or negative.
  • Loyalty depends on context. The position the employee holds, time at the company and their perceived value dictates loyalty.
  • Everyone wants to learn. Most employees want to do their job well.
  • Everyone likes feedback. Employees want to know how they are doing and how they can do better.

I think Deal’s findings hold true for Generation Z as well. I agree that generational conflict is an easy victim but does not hold up to scrutiny when polled.

Organizations can quiet the noise about generational issues by instituting practices to make their employees feel valued. For instance, establish a company culture that values skill sets, including social communication, as the major contribution all employees bring to the organization over age or company longevity. Develop a culture with skill sets at the center from recruitment to retirement. Recruit and hire with skill sets in mind that complement company culture. Besides promoting harmony among the generations, reduction in attrition is a byproduct of a company culture based on skill sets.

Transparency and an employee’s understanding of their contribution to company success is another way to take the focus away from generational differences. If an organization is transparent and employees are aware of their contribution to the whole, generational differences are inconsequential. Organizations can design professional development starting with onboarding and continue education throughout employment as a given cost of business that nets positive return on investment. Age does not factor into either transparency or training if they are company expectations.

Finally, organizations can create a team spirit that defies division by continually reminding employees, “You Belong Here. We value you, not your youth, gender, ethnicity, or age. We value the whole person with the skill sets you bring to contribute to the growth of the organization.” The message is clear and visible in all parts of the organization. “You Belong Here” communicates that everyone is part of a team. Teams hold each other accountable for their part in the whole. If we believe Jennifer J. Deal’s research that across generations employees agree on seven key points attributed individually to specific generations, the message “You Belong Here” will resonate with all five groups.