Leading Across the Generation Gap


Leading Across the Generation Gap

Leadership can be a tricky skill to master at the best of times let alone when you are dealing with people who have very different world views.

This is often referred to as a generation gap. As your business grows, it’s more and more likely that you will be employing Millenials, and Gen Ys and members of the iGeneration (ones who’ve always had’ iThings’, not those who say ‘I’ all the time). All jokes aside, one of the most complicated things that many managers find is leading across the generation gap. Keep reading for four ingredients to success.

Almost every person at work, regardless of their age, has at some time gazed skyward in frustration and wondered how to get a message through to someone.

This can happen if you are:

  • A manager trying to give instructions.
  • An employee asking a question.
  • A co-worker seeking collaboration.

Communication can be tricky at the best of times, let alone when it seems people are speaking another language. What drives those differences? There has been a lot written and spoken about the generation gap and the differences between generations.

How does this affect you at work?

People who struggle with bridging the generation gap make comments like:

  • “There’s no respect from the new generation.”
  • “They want different things.”
  • “Work is meant to be hard, don’t they get that.”
  • “They’re not like us.”

Are those words familiar? Have you thought them or said them to a trusted advisor?

Let me tell you something:

These words have been said in workplaces for over 40 years.

Yes, every generation of leaders has found it challenging to deal with the influx of graduates or youth. In fact, I’m sure that leaders of you and I said that about us.

In essence, the ‘new generation’ will continue to be a feature of our workplaces, and there is certainly a range of different differences in people entering the workforce today. Young people (who learned their expectations and aspirations from their parents, people who may be around your age) are entering a workplace that is very different to what it was 20 years ago.

  • There is less job certainty today – Success at work for an individual rests on individual ability to adapt.
  • Communication styles have changed – Employees are now well educated on their rights and the legislation that is in place to protect them (thank goodness things like ‘hazing’ are no longer common).
  • The hierarchy and positional power don’t hold the same appeal that it used to do – The internet has opened up communication and understanding of what else is around, and we want to explore it.

At this point, I need to also stress that this article applies to young leaders who are employing older workers just as much as it does to older leaders employing young people.

Many young leaders have spoken to me about their concern that they are not respected by older employees even though they have the position and/or title of Manager. The generation gap affects everyone.

What are the four ingredients to success when managing across generations?

These are a general set of guidelines, and it’s really important to understand yourself and your generational footprint too. So many things that we expect and anticipate are based on unchallenged habits and assumptions; it may be hard, but it does us good to challenge ourselves every once in a while.

1. Have a clear and clearly stated ‘vision’ and ‘why’ for the business and its activity.

Employees (especially the iGeneration) want to be connected to something worthwhile. They will not do tasks that have no seeming meaning, neither will I actually, and I’m a Gen X, would you? Be willing to connect work and roles to the bigger picture

2. Get better at accepting and embracing different views and opinions.

This is not about dissent or disrespect; however, it is a great way to avoid the negatives of Group Think (where everyone thinks the same way and innovation dies). Get better at hearing different views; you might find a gem of an idea in there, or an opportunity to explain why your path is different.

3. Recognise that there may well be another way.

You may have created the process or business or work practice, but that does not guarantee that it will always be the best way. We are living and working in an incredibly dynamic environment; over 40% of jobs that are needed in 2030 do not exist today. That’s only a bit over a decade away.

4. Avoid judging a book by its cover.

People’s behaviour is the result of their background, experiences and personality. It is not automatically tied to their age. It’s your business, and you need to know what attributes and culture makes your business a success. That is what really matters.

Bridging the generation gap is not a new challenge, although it may be for you.

It fundamentally comes down to good communication and effective leadership. There is no silver bullet to ‘fix it’ and in fact having different generations at work can bring greater results when you learn to manage for it rather than against it.

When we learn to adapt our style, so it focuses on outcomes and leading the humans involved, then we have a dynamic and effective culture.

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