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What’s age got to do with it? Tips for bridging the workplace generation gap

By Mike DiCandilo  –  Guest Columnist, Philadelphia Business Journal

For the first time in the history of the modern workplace, workforce demographics now span four generations.  In fact, according to the American Society for Training and Development, nearly 92 percent of U.S. workplaces have employees from at least three of those four generations.

With that diversity comes different values, ideas, approaches to work, and ways of communicating.

Navigating those differences is no easy task. More millennials – who recently surpassed Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation – are climbing the corporate ladder into leadership ranks and managing older, more experienced employees, while one in four workplaces report conflicts between older managers and their younger staff.

So how can companies and their management teams bridge the generation gap? The corporations and managers that are most adept at navigating generational differences in the workplace follow these best practices.

Communicate Effectively

Each generation has distinct attitudes, behaviors, expectations, habits, and motivations, and research shows those influence communication preference. For example, older generations generally value more formal, in-person communications, while younger generations tend to prefer more immediate, electronic communications. By learning how to communicate with and recognize the inherent differences in styles between generations, managers can eliminate many of the conflicts and tensions that may arise.

Avoid stereotypes and bias

While it’s natural for all employees to approach their work in distinct ways, this also makes it easy for generalizations and stereotypes to color perceptions – and that has quantifiable effects on productivity, particularly when it is based on a worker’s age and assumed preferences and habits. According to a survey by the American Society of Training and Development, intergenerational conflicts that arise from stereotyping colleagues causes a third of workers to waste five or more hours each workweek. By focusing on facts versus assumptions, creating diverse teams and working groups to challenge stereotypes, and acknowledging that age-based assumptions work both ways, managers can help their employees bridge the generational gap.

Value what each group brings to the table

Age diversity often translates into a workforce with varying frames of reference, influenced by different life events, cultural occurrences and more. By understanding and acknowledging the unique skills, expertise and perspectives of each group, managers can leverage those attributes and deploy them in strategic, effective ways. For example, older employees generally possess valuable, irreplaceable work experience, while younger generations have typically grown up and are more familiar with technology, making them less resistant to new applications and advances. But it’s important to look beyond those hard skills, which frequently can be learned or coached. Softer skills, such as maintaining a positive attitude, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and demonstrating a good work ethic are just as valuable – and often, more difficult to teach.

Encourage mentoring and coaching

Each generation is equipped with important, shareable skills and abilities – but those talents are only as valuable as the ability to share and develop those same capabilities in others. Establishing mentoring and coaching programs not only helps build relationships between staff who might not otherwise interact, but also engages employees in meaningful ways and leaves them feeling valued, regardless of generation. Additionally, these programs leverage, share, and increase the diverse strengths of a workplace team and allow management to take advantage of teachable moments.

Find a Common Cause

When staff perceive their employer as socially responsible, they have more positive attitudes in performance-related areas. A solid CSR strategy can improve staff performance, retain top performers and foster a sense of community among colleagues – all which can significantly decrease workplace conflicts. Partnering with an organization like United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey provides an opportunity to build a team around charitable cause. And with multiple ways to engage, ranging from events, affinity groups, and customized volunteer opportunities, employees of any generation can find the perfect fit.

Lead from the top

Building positive relationship is not just the responsibility of individual contributors and middle managers. All other best practices are less effective if they are not supported at the leadership level. Leading by example is critical to developing buy-in among employees. Coach management to understand the differences between workers of various generations, and how that affects those workers’ styles, approaches, and frames of reference. Ensuring management is aware of the potential for generational conflict, shares the commitment to positive workplace relationships, and is aware of best practices are all critical to bridging the generational gap.

Empower employees 

Demonstrate that commitment by empowering teams. While setting guidelines and expectations for employees to follow is essential to a productive and efficient workplace, empowering employees to explore their preferred ways to navigate interpersonal and intergenerational relationships establishes respect for others and creates buy-in for positive relationships. In addition, that empowerment allows management to demonstrate its own commitment to diverse thought and representation. Enable employees to explore what works for them, maintain open doors of communication that embrace differences in style, and make communication a two-way street.

Different generations have different approaches to their careers and professional lives. But when leveraged correctly, those differences can be invaluable to an organization’s future by unearthing new perspectives and innovative approaches than open the door to a profitable, multi-generational future.

Mike DiCandilo is interim president and CEO of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.

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