Imagine walking into a classroom where you are the teacher and your students are only a few years your junior. This was the reality for Dr. Megan W. Gerhardt when, at the age of 26, she started her career as a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. As part of her first few years in the role, she asked for feedback from both students and her older colleagues. The results were transformative.
“I found out quickly that learning from a generation older than me and a generation younger than me was making me better at my job,” says Gerhardt, today a professor of leadership at Miami University. “As an organizational psychologist, I know our culture values diversity, but what I was seeing was that diversity in age wasn’t something we were talking about in a positive way. That kind of diversity is at best being ignored and at worst being mocked—pitting groups against each other. Where we wouldn’t ever tolerate that behavior for any other differences, we were ignoring using this diversity effectively.”
This realization changed the path of Gerhardt’s life and today she is one of the country’s thought leaders on the topic, speaking and consulting regularly with companies on managing a multigenerational workforce. She is also the author of Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce and founder of Gentelligence Academy, which offers remote trainings to teams focused on, as her website states, unlocking the ‘talent potential of our diverse, intergenerational workforce by proactively attracting, developing, and engaging employees at every age.’
Those who decide to start businesses today are very likely leading multigenerational teams, because, as Gerhardt explains, there are a whopping five generations working at once.
“We have the Silent Generation through Gen Z,” she says, adding that the Silent Generation (those persons born between 1928 and 1945 only make up about 3 percent of the workforce with the inclusion of President Joe Biden, who was born in 1942.) “We will go down to four generations in a few years. However, Gen Z is anyone born between 1997 and 2012, so they’ve only been in the workforce for five years, which means they will sustain being the youngest in the workforce for about another 10 years.”
Add to this mix Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who Gerhardt says are working longer than was anticipated, and the difficulties around leading a multigenerational workforce can arise.
The benefits of bridging generational differences at work are numerous, but it comes down to embracing different perspectives.
Challenges of Managing a Multigenerational Workforce
So why can leading a multigenerational workforce feel so hard? Gerhardt says there a few common barriers, starting with bias.
“It is easy to fall into tired clichés like the ‘entitled Millennial, the slacker Gen X,’ she says, adding that those stereotypes can be unfounded. “Instead, the question should be, ‘When a Gen Z person thinks about work, what does it mean to them? What does it mean to grow up during a pandemic and start your career in the chaotic phase of the post-COVID workforce? And why does it mean something different from you?’
Another barrier is around the myths that generations are fundamentally different, when in truth, no one wants to be put into a box.
“Gentillegence allows the concept that I can be aware of how growing up in a different time can influence how I work and view the world, but can also acknowledge that my generation is just one layer of my identity like my culture, race or status,” Gerhardt says. “Every person in my generation has their own story.”
Specific challenges have been documented—like one generation being more tech savvy than another. And one generation thinking about what it means to work differently from another. When Gerhardt’s book came out, her 74-year-old father, a retired attorney, approached her about this very topic, explaining that when he started his career the way to gain respect from his superiors involved working and waiting for someone to notice and give him a raise.
“But by the time he retired, he said the younger generation was telling him it was time for them to get a promotion,” she remembers, adding that norms of workplace behavior change over time. ”If you look at the norms of another generation through your lens, you will judge them as wrong. What we need to do is to judge them as interesting.”
How to Lead a Multigenerational Workforce
Leading a multigenerational workforce can be an unique proposition, especially considering, as Gerhardt says, 41% of employees are reporting to a boss that is younger than them.
For Hanna Olivas, the biggest secret on how to manage a multigenerational workforce comes down to kind communication. Olivas is CEO of She Rises Studios, a multi-digital marketing studio that produces podcasts, television shows (including its own streaming service Fenix TV), retreats and summits. In her role, she manages a team of 25 people where the youngest is 21 and the oldest is 50.
Early on, she helped institute a company-wide team meeting at 9 am every Monday morning. The purpose of the meeting is to give every team member the time and space to say what they feel is important.
“It is a ‘no judgement zone,’” she says. “It is a time for people to present an idea or something they didn’t like. It’s been super helpful in making sure we stay on top of what is happening in the business and intentionally making space for the perspectives of the younger, middle-aged, and mature members of our team.”
The results have included positive culture changes and even performance has improved.
In her book, Gerhardt suggests four practices to help every business owner lead a multigenerational workforce. The first is to identify your assumptions. For example, if you believe that flexibility means getting off work at 1 pm on a Friday, you may want to check in with your other team members on what the word flexibility means to them. And then adjust accordingly. The answers may surprise you.
Second is to “adjust your lens,” she says. “It is the idea that we are seeing things through our own generational lenses.” Rather than judging employees and co-workers, she recommends getting curious about where they are coming from and asking them for ideas on more effective ways to communicate.
Third is to build trust, like what Olivas is doing with her Monday morning meetings. “We find that older people are less likely to ask questions at work. They don’t want to be seen as incompetent or outdated,” says Gerhardt. “And that younger people are less likely to contribute ideas at the risk of seeming entitled. The best thing to do is to form a roundtable or intergenerational resource group.”
Her fourth strategy is to embrace mutual learning—the idea that “every generation has something to learn and something to teach,” she says. “You can do this with a mutual mentoring program.”
The benefits of bridging generational differences at work are numerous, but for Olivas it comes down to embracing different perspectives.
“It helps us be more innovative, create new things, and learn from those who’ve done it before,” she says. “When handled with kind communication, it can be a huge strength to any company.”
A version of this article was originally published on December 6, 2010 .
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