Not for the first time in recent years we face the dilemma of engaging a multi-generational workforce. The workplace has always had multiple generations at work at the same time, and there have always been challenges and gaps between generations in work as in society. In some ways, it is a necessity for any society to have such generational gaps as they fuel innovation that prompts positive change and evolution.
I believe that before we look at the generational difference in the workplace, we have to understand individuality. First and foremost each person brings a unique combination of attitudes, behaviours, strengths, and talents to the workplace. These unique combinations are not fixed but are influenced by everyday experiences. Therefore, when we engage with people in the workplace, such interactions are setting the premise of the way we work with each other.
The outcome of each interaction is a shared responsibility.
Every new generation has commonalities with older generations. For example, younger generations tend to be more idealistic in their outlook of the world. They are enthusiastic and willing to succeed but usually are not too clear about what they would like to succeed at. Newer generations are also often very ingenious, full of ideas but lack the experience to communicate these thoughts.
Older generations, on the contrary, can be disillusioned, attached to modes of working that they have practised over time. Older generations are influenced by a large body of experiences and therefore less keen on changing too quickly and more sensitive to potential risks.
All of these are generalised patterns of course, but they immediately provide an insight into the kind of generational conflicts that commonly arise in the workplace.
Working with many graduates, I get interesting but obvious answers when I ask the question “which behaviour do you find most challenging dealing with people in the workplace?” The answers are very consistent:
- Unwillingness to change
- Not open to new ideas
- Dismissive attitudes
- Don’t follow through
- Not willing to share
- Set unrealistic expectations
- They keep dumping work on me!
On the contrary working with older generations of managers the answers I get in relation to graduate behaviours are:
- They all want to become executives tomorrow
- They don’t have relevant experience
- They don’t seem to understand the concept of responsibility
- They have very high expectations but are not willing to put in the work
- They seem to know everything even if they don’t
- They have no idea how things really work.
It seems clear to me that the most effective way for older generations to work with newer generations is to pay attention to the behaviour they demonstrate in the first place.
It’s on the shoulders of the older generation to take on the roles of mentor and supporter not only in building work experience but also in navigating the challenges newer generations face when entering the workplace.
Empathy plays a critical role here, taking the time to understand graduates’ perspectives and help them find a way to work through the challenges they encounter in influencing people around them, considering and exploring key stakeholder perspectives, and in developing confidence and credibility.
Indeed, the impact of technology on millennials has changed significantly the way new generations engage with each other. It is critical to recognise how they usually engage from behind the safety of social media networks, where it’s easy to express one’s opinion and shape one’s identity.
Face to face engagements on serious issues can be daunting for them. It is important for older generations to spend time building trust, confidence and psychological safety to help them become comfortable with relevant performance conversation.
New generations need a lot of feedback but they also need to be involved and listened to, they need to be helped engage in adult to adult conversations rather than parent to child conversations.
Another critical difference the age of technology has brought about in the new generations is the easy access to a wealth of information, which is often not necessarily verifiable. This situation has brought about three critical challenges.
- Because information is at their fingertips, they don’t need to remember it, and therefore the missing memorisation process of association causes them to evaluate information superficially. They usually find it hard to connect information and develop deep complex thinking.
- Because their sources are often unchecked, it is easy for them to take on misguided positions with all the potential consequences these can bring on when making critical decisions.
- Because everything is at their fingertips the idea of waiting for change to happen and sticking to hard work to achieve specific results is usually a challenge.
The role of older generations in helping and supporting younger generations to develop as individuals is critical. Graduates have a lot to offer to any organisation, but in order for them to contribute effectively, it is important to create the appropriate environment for them to thrive. Such an environment starts with good role models who provide healthy examples of behaviour while paying attention, listening and remaining open to new ideas.
Fabio Grassi is an IMI associate who is the Programme Director of the IMI Graduate Development Programme and facilitates on IMI Diploma in Executive Coaching & High Performance Teams. Fabio is a specialist in graduate development as well as team performance, collaboration and motivation.