The secret to managing a multi-generational workforce

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Newly promoted or hired managers have a lot on their plates.

Asides from quickly expanded roles and more responsibility, settling into the job can mean winning over team members with more experience and from different generations.

“Great managers possess the ability to lead people from different backgrounds and unify them as a productive, effective team,” says Matt Weston, director at finance recruitment specialist Robert Half UK. “However, this task may prove to be more challenging today as managers are supervising four distinct generations in the workplace; baby boomers, and generations X, Y and Z.”

And to complicate matters further, workers within each of these four generations often have preferred leadership styles, says Weston. “Many baby boomers are accustomed to a top-down, unilateral management style. Gen Xers typically prefer managers to act as coaches, guiding them toward better results. Generation Y often looks to a manager to be an experienced partner who will work with them to achieve a common goal, while Generation Z likes having a teacher who shows them how to accomplish goals themselves.”

Yet while this may seem a headache from a management perspective, the business case for a diverse range of generations is clear: “Managing a department with just one or two consecutive generations working under the same roof might seem simpler, but it wouldn’t be as useful as having the distinct perspectives of 20-to-60-year-olds around the same table,” says Weston.

“Having a multigenerational team is also beneficial for customer service. Because your clients are multigenerational, your finance and accounting staff should be too. A company is enriched when it is comprised of team members with different perspectives, backgrounds and opinions.”

Managing experience

Initially a concern for some young managers can be age gaps between them and team members. “For some this won’t be a problem, but for others it may be a constant reminder of career goals they haven’t managed to attain,” says career strategist and author of The Success Code John Lees. “Avoid falling into the stereotype of the over-promoted younger manager (bossy, opinionated, lacking real job knowledge) by listening, consulting, and learning from the experience of those around you.”

Managing more experienced people requires sensitivity, tact, but also a clear sense of who is in charge, says Lees. “More experienced workers are more likely to want to work in their own style and may feel they can do the job better than you. Leading from the front by demonstrating the skills that got you the job is a good way of demonstrating this is untrue.”

Additionally, understand that insecure managers tell people what to do and how to do it, while secure managers tap into existing knowledge. “Begin a conversation ‘I’d like to pick your brain’ or ‘I’d like your advice. Be open to learning from people who have been around for some time,” says Lees.

More simply and respectfully, ignore the age difference altogether, deny it’s validity in the workplace. “Looking at it from an age angle isn’t helpful,” says Yvonne Saxon, head of HR, Diversity & Inclusion Services at Vista Employer Services. “Younger people can have more experience and expertise, and indeed many managers have to manage people with a completely different skillset and who are therefore more experienced than them in that discipline.”

In this way, Sobia Nazir, an HR advisor at personnel services firm APM UK, tackled managing people with longer track-records by valuing everyone’s experience regardless of age, agreeing on solutions by setting expectations together and having open and honest communication. “We are all adults; we need to be adaptable and work as a team – we all have the same business objectives. For me, the key to employee happiness is giving them the freedom to do their role within clear guidelines and being there to support them. No one likes to be told what to do; autonomy, recognition and support can go a long way.”

Reverse mentoring

There is little argument that with age comes experience and even wisdom, which can be invaluable in developing a multigenerational team. “Often there is no substitute for spending years on the job and learning every trick of the trade on the frontlines,” says Weston.

In this vein, mentoring has long been a corporate fixture. Employers pair off newer recruits with their more long-standing colleagues, so they can tap into their wealth of knowledge. “But it’s also true that more senior employees can learn from younger people, particularly when it comes to making the best use of technology and finding out different ways of adding value to the business,” says Weston.

Companies are increasingly introducing reverse mentoring programmes, with younger colleagues sharing their experiences and insights with highly experienced professionals. “It’s a fascinating strategy, as it ensures that ideas and viewpoints don’t just flow from the top down and supports the development in a multigenerational workforce,” says Weston.

In researching this article, a lively debate on this topic got underway on the LinkedIn group ‘People Management’ – take a look, get involved.

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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