How to Think About Generational Leadership


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In today’s workplace, leaders are challenged with managing vastly different generations within the same workspace. It is essential that leaders are able to understand the different generations of individuals who have grown up in different times, have opposing values and possess different experiences and expectations. A successful leader is aware of, and acknowledges that generational differences exist in the workplace and stresses the importance of learning how to adjust their leadership and communication styles to best suit the individual needs of employees. Typically, all generations want to work in an organisation that is fair and ethical. However, where traditionals and Baby Boomer generations value professionalism, Millennials prefer a friendly and social work environment.

Previous research indicates that some core values do cross multiple generations, such as teamwork, suggesting that all employees, irrespective of age, enjoy working within a team environment. It is also apparent that the different generations want to feel valued, recognised, appreciated and work in a supportive environment. However, in order for a leader to ensure that employees feel valued and supported, they first need to understand what each generation expects from their workplace. For example, all employees want to be respected at work however for older generations this may mean that their opinions are valued due to their experience within the organisation. Whereas younger workers want to be listened to and have equal respect shown to all, regardless of tenure. Therefore, meeting the differing expectations of each individual may be a genuine challenge for leaders.

In the traditional work environment, interactions were formal and structured. As a result, older employees prefer these types of interactions, particularly with management. Typically, older generations also prefer to communicate face-to-face or over the phone, whereas Millennials, who have grown up in a socially connected world, favour direct, text-based communication via email or instant messages. Furthermore, millennials want to ask questions which, from their perspective, does not equate with disrespect. However, older generations may perceive questioning as undermining and rude. The key to effective communication across different generations is educating employees on the individual expectations and preferences of the people that they are communicating with. Specifically, managers who have been working within an organisation for a number of years, must be able to adjust how they communicate with younger employees to suit the style of communication that the individual will best respond to. Conversely, younger generations must be mindful of how older employees interpret their inquisitive nature.

Generational differences also exist in how individuals approach their work. For example, older generations tend to be process-oriented and believe in working as many hours necessary in order to complete the task. Older employees respect the chain of command and are willing to make the personal sacrifice for career achievement. Alternatively, Millennials are results-focused, emphasise high productivity and are happier with the flexibility and autonomy of managing their own time. Millennials believe in work-life balance and believe productivity is more important than time spent working. Typically, it is the younger generations that are more open to an agile work environment, as this type of workspace reinforces flexible behaviours and is in-line with their expectations for autonomy and work-life balance. However, this is not to say that older employees will be resistant to the change, but rather that they may require additional training and education from management, to assist them in transiting to a new way of working.

A successful leader understands that each generation thinks of work differently, and considers offering different working environments and communication styles to their staff, based on this understanding. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect a manager to change work processes to suit the needs of every individual. However, it is reasonable to expect that a leader will be educated on generation differences in order to improve working relationships within their team. The focus towards creating a workplace culture of consideration and respect across all the generations, encourages a well-understood working environment.