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Managing Across Generations

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Managers today face the daunting task of managing teams that span generations. Accordingly, team members have varying ages, socio-economic outlooks, motivational levels, and lifestyles. The challenge is in understanding the different ideas, values, work styles, and communication preferences that each generation possesses.

To better understand staff members, it is important to comprehend what motivates them. Maslow’s (1943) theory of motivation states that people are motivated to achieve certain basic needs. These needs are classified as physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization.  As you strive to be better stewards of human capital, you should possess a basic understanding of each generation from a broad point of view:

  • The Silent Generation or Traditionalists, born between 1927 and 1945, are in their 70s and 80s. They are primarily retired, and those who remain in the workforce, often work reduced hours. Traditionalists are disciplined, conformists, and respect authority and experience. They hold traditional family values. They prefer to communicate by phone or by memo.

  • Baby boomers, born between 1942 and 1953, including the post-World War II baby boom (1946-1964), are ages 54—73 and make up about 20% of North America’s population. Boomers tend to be highly committed to work, value personal fulfillment, are quality conscious, and question authority. They are also team players who desire title recognition and to be valued personally.

  • Generation X is most widely believed to include individuals born between 1965 and 1980, although a small but passionate group of people argue the minority view that Gen X started as early as 1961. They are ages 36 –55, either seeking fulfillment in the prime of their careers or reinventing themselves as entrepreneurs. Many Gen Xers were latch key kids who returned from school to an empty home because their parents were away at work.  As a result, they assumed more independence at an early age. They “live in the moment” and are informal, cautious, conservative, and thrifty. Gen Xers seek structure and direction, challenging others by asking “Why?” They prefer to connect directly by cell phone.

  • Generation Y or Millennials or the Net Generation, born between the later half of the 1970’s and 2000, grew up in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Often raised in blended families, Gen Yers place an incredible amount of focus on belonging, self-importance, and self-actualization. This generation grew up with technology and makes extensive use of the Internet, social media, and email.  They earn to spend and often push the envelope (extend the limits) or jump ship (terminate employment) based on money or self-esteem.

Understanding what motivates individuals is essential to effectively leading a team.  A tactic I like and learned from another manager upon joining our team is as follows:  At a department meeting, after introducing himself and some plans for the future, the manager handed out index cards and asked each attendee to put their name on the top line, followed by the name of their spouse/partner and children. We were puzzled, for sure. On the cards, he also asked us to share what motivates us in the workplace and how we like to be recognized, i.e. by award, cash, time off, etc. The manager shared his information with attendees and asked that the cards be retained for one-on-one meetings with him, to be held soon.

The manager explained that there were many staff members, and he wanted to get to know each of us better, and conversely, us, him. Once we knew more about each other, we could communicate in a style consistent with our generation. This is a brilliant tactic for managing across generations. He took the time to engage the staff in a way that did not put anyone on the spot and created an opportunity for personal follow-up and follow-thru. This tactic can be duplicated and embraced to respect individual differences, capitalize on team commonalities, and build a cohesive team.

By the year 2025, the millennial generation will comprise over 75% of the American workforce. What does this mean for you as a manager?  It means that these staff members will require their needs to be met to stay and grow with the organization.  This will require a culture change to create an environment where all are valued. The change will not be easy – but it will be rewarding. Leading and managing successful teams takes an open, adaptive mind, geared toward developing and motivating team members to provide world-class goods and services.


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