In the realm of important life maxims, “know thyself” can be followed quickly by “know thy audience”; and if your job involves communicating with a generationally diverse team, then the learning curve for reaching that audience may be a bit steeper than usual. Certainly, working with staffers of various ages is common to most of us, however studies show that for the first time in history we are entering an era where four to five generations will be working side by side. That incredible statistic speaks to our longer life expectancy and the fact that many senior workers are staying on the job longer than in the past. So, the mix of expectations and styles within your team may continue to diversify in the years ahead. This brings up the question of how do the different ages like to learn and what do they need from their company, their manager and from one another?By striving to understand the learning needs of your team today, you are paving the way to maximizing the skills of your people and creating an environment for success going forward.
It’s about you
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, experts recommend that managers step up and adjust their style to fit the differing needs of employees instead of expecting the employees to change. Also, it’s important to understand generational differences without falling into stereotypes that don’t do justice to the real folks sitting in the cubicles nearby. Knowing thy people takes some initiative, and probably on-going education, but the results will be well worth it.
For example, it may be helpful to note that many Veterans or Silent Generation (1939-1947) and Baby Boomers (1946-1964) are accustomed to a more formal, hierarchal corporate structure and value an appreciation for their loyalty and work ethic. Conversely, many Gen X (1965-1977), Milennials (1978-1992) and Gen Z (1995-2010) employees may be more focused on professional development and training opportunities, and may see jobs as more fluid. By understanding where people are coming from you can sidestep negative suppositions and implement methodologies that support staffers successfully across the board.
“Stereotypes of each generation aside, ultimately employees want the same thing — to be engaged at work and to have a good manager who acts as a coach and helps them achieve their specific career goals,” says Rajeev Behera, chief executive of real-time performance management platform Reflektive.
How to get there
Mentoring: Researchers encourage the use of mentoring to unite the team and to allow employees to use their strengths for the good of the group. Rebecca Knight, writing for Harvard Business Review, cites the success of the military in having soldiers partner up and the common practice of younger lieutenants overseeing seasoned sergeants. There may be some bumps along the way, but the system of new recruits coming in and the need to share skills is well established in the military environment. By building collaboration, you open the door to shared learning and teamwork.
Different Strokes: Knowing a bit about your employees and their needs allows you to tailor learning to fit different styles. Offering continuing education can help older employees keep current while, at the same time, spearheading special assignments like a task force, or a presence on social media, may bring out the best in younger workers. Also, consider offering continuing education in different ways; perhaps a learning module is available in PowerPoint format as well as online with a gaming component. Where it’s possible to offer options that fit the whole team, the results will be exponentially greater.
You get a prize! And you get a prize!
Employee needs may differ, but everyone likes to feel appreciated. Part of knowing your team means knowing what’s important to them with regards to benefits, recognition and communication. Human Resources Consultant Jeanne C. Meister recommends thinking like an anthropologist and assessing where people are on their life path and what their needs are right now. This may mean that younger employees respond best to incentives that include new experiences, while mid-life employees may place higher value on flexible schedules, and senior employees may prize telecommuting options.
What’s that you say?
Finally, “feeling heard” or giving voice to employees rates as an extremely important factor in overall career satisfaction. Communication is essential and knowing how to facilitate it is the mark of a strong leader. When thinking cross-generationally consider the more formal needs of senior workers who may prefer public recognition, structured evaluations and the opportunity to communicate by phone or in person. Meanwhile, the Gens (X,Y, and Z) often prefer open discussion and idea sharing, more frequent feedback and the chance to communicate via email, text or instant messaging. Open communication (in whatever forms that may take) and feedback allow the team to grow together and like the many branches of a tree, be stronger through the diversity of its parts.
MORE LEARNING: For real life examples of cross-generational mentoring, check out the case studies at the end of: Managing People from 5 Generations, by Rebecca Knight at Harvard Business Review.