Appreciating the Diversity of Multiple Generations in the Workplace

Never before have we seen such a diversity of generations all working in the same place at one time. You have no doubt been party to, or at the very least witnessed the perplexing, often hilarious, sometimes serious consequences that ensue when communication between them goes awry. Granted, South Africans have become pretty skilled at managing diversity, but this new challenge seems to have even the most accommodating of us rolling our eyes in exasperation. Generational Theory suggests that there are value bases to each generation that have been shaped during our formative years and influenced by local events with a global reach. As a result, workplaces are currently comprised of three distinct generations that have different expectations and approaches to life, leadership, work and relationships. They value different things and are thus motivated by different rewards – but all are trying to co-exist and find meaning in workplaces whose policies, procedures and reward systems are (understandably) applied in a “one size fits all” way.

In order to meet the strategic needs of the business and enable meaningful career paths, we need to be aware of generational differences in the workplace. If managers and HR professionals understand these generational differences, they will have more effective and meaningful conversations about future development, and a clue of how to optimise the spread of resources.

When it comes to what they value in the workplace, it is useful to recognise that each of the Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y generations have distinct and at times contradicting expectations. There are many reasons for these but we’ll consider a few of the more salient expectations of each:

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Optimising intergenerational teams and individual performance necessitates that managers connect more appropriately to the underlying values that drive attitudes and behaviour of each. Building a framework of understanding and insight will allow productive conversations to take place and asking the right questions will lead to an exploration of discovering the appropriate answers. A good place to start would be to simply ask of one another: “what is important to you and what are your expectations of our workplace”?  The ensuing conversations will need to be both authentic and sustainable – they are also unavoidable if you are serious about talent retention!

How is your company coping with Generation C? Those (largely Gen Y’s) who are “connected, communicating, content-centric, computerized, community-oriented, and always clicking”? Research suggests that the arrival of Generation C is having an impact comparable to that of the Industrial Revolution, but it is taking place much more quickly. Technical skills aside, a very simple, yet broadly applicable example of skills modification pertains to that ubiquitous “Communication skills” that invariably appears on most job profiles. Have you updated your definition to include “the ability to communicate effectively in a multigenerational workplace and confidently engage younger and older staff and customers”?  These changes may also put pressure on us to redefine talent – and consider the possibility that identifying, harnessing, motivating and retaining it in each generational group may require different approaches. After all, what once motivated a fairly homogenous group of Boomers, is no longer the same recipe for how to inspire a multigenerational employee base comprised of vastly differing personal and professional values.

By understanding the impact of different generations, inside and outside your organisation, you can improve customer relationships, communications, recruitment, team dynamics, leadership effectiveness and the productivity and interactions of your teams. By appreciating and optimising the various perspectives from history and experience, a shared desire to get the job done and the fresh voices and ideas, you can leverage the multigenerational insights and skills to ensure the company’s continued success.

While it’s important to explore the generational differences, it’s equally important to do so in a context that acknowledges and celebrates our many intergenerational similarities.

For a bit more reading on this fascinating topic, try Mind the Gap: Understanding why we don’t understand – a Tomorrow Today presentation that is available online. Alternatively, consider running an in-house workshop with BIOSS SA to build insight, demystify the differences and better appreciate the unique angle your multigenerational human resources have on the world.