Managing Different Generations in the Workplace

If you’re like many small business owners today, your workplace includes three generations of employees: boomers, Gen X and Gen Y/Millennials. ZDNet recently took a look at the challenges of managing multigenerational workforces and how some companies handle this issue. Although the examples used were large companies, there’s a lot that small businesses can learn.

First, here are some characteristics of each age group:

Boomers are extremely job-focused. They value security and stability, and appreciate clearly stated goals and tasks. They prefer to communicate through in-person meetings and emails.

Gen X (born roughly between 1965 and 1981) values work-life balance and independence. They are adaptable and resourceful, and most have learned to use digital technology and communicate with the latest tech tools.

Gen Y/Millennials (born roughly between 1982 and 2001) are described by one expert in ZDNet’s article as “Gen X on steroids.” They value work-life balance and flexibility even more than Gen X. They also seek freedom and want to be treated as equals from their first day on the job. This generation doesn’t fear authority, and seeks challenging and meaningful work. And they’re the most tech-savvy of the three groups, preferring to communicate quickly via texting and IM.

Each generation has unique strengths, clearly—but their strengths may also be perceived as weaknesses by the other age groups. How can you keep your three generations of employees working harmoniously as a team? Take a page from these big-company strategies:

Consider individual needs. At IBM, a Generational Diversity program assesses employees’ career “life cycles” and the different needs a person may have at all stages of their career. As a small business owner, you’re in an even better position to learn what each employee values, wants and needs to be most productive. For instance, Boomers will probably relish being put in charge of a project; a Gen-Xer will appreciate the autonomy to complete a task her way; and a Millennial will enjoy sharing ideas with a creative team working together.

Strive to keep older workers engaged. When an older employee leaves the company because he or she no longer feels valued, your business loses valuable institutional knowledge. Make sure your older staffers don’t feel like they’re being pushed aside for younger team members. Make extra efforts to keep them engaged and show that their contributions are valued.

Tap into diverse age groups to innovate. Fire up meetings or brainstorming sessions by including employees from all age levels. A diverse group means more viewpoints and more creativity. Having staff members from different generations gives your business an advantage, so use it!

Honor each person’s contribution. Especially in a group setting such as a team project or meeting, make sure that you show how much you appreciate what each worker brings to the team. Encourage workers to share their knowledge, whether it’s an entry-level Millennial showing a Boomer manger how to use social media or a Boomer employee explaining the history of a long-term client to a Gen X salesperson.

Emphasize commonality. It’s easy for employees to become adversarial when they focus on their differences. Continually remind your team of its common goals—winning new business, growing sales or whatever your company is working to achieve. Pulling together will help overcome generational differences and build tighter bonds.

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Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a Columnist for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and free TrendCast reports.

10 Reactions
  1. Despite the difficulty of each age group having such different preferred communication styles, the interaction of the three groups can provide great ideas. You have the combination of experience and youth. Quick thinking tempered with consistent effort. View this as an opportunity, not a potential problem and you’ll be rewarded.

  2. This is another indicator that the corporate structure of the Industrial Age, also known as Giant Corporation, Inc., is a thing of the past. There will always be big businesses, just like there are still railroads, but there era has past. Boomers bought the idea of being an “employee” and trading ALL of the their best time for money. Gen X and Y have figured out the “Time is the New Money”. If you give them time, they will make you money – just the opposite of the boomers.

    The whole Industrial Age concept of “employees” is a bankrupt idea. We don’t have any – we have six stakeholders instead who will never think of themselves in the Indust. Age role of “employee”. We don’t have any vacation policy, no office hours, and nobody is watching to see who’s car was in the lot first or last.

    Gen X and Y will never put up with the Industrial Age mindset and constraints of Giant Corporation, Inc., and the advance in nano-technology and information sharing is going to allow them to manufacture in their garage what used to take a giant factory and 500 people to turn out.

    We’re going back where we came from – local, and the X’s and Y’s are going to lead us back home.

  3. Hi Rieva,

    I am sure a lot of people would enjoy reading your post because I think many companies are going through the same situation these days. However, I agree that when everyone is included in the discussions and given equal importance, employees regardless of age feel needed and the company ends up with a higher retention rate. Thanks for sharing!

    Riya Sam
    Training for

  4. Good suggestions! I especially like the idea of focusing on each person’s strengths as contributions to the team. As any coach knows, different players have different skills, all of them needed to for the team to win.

  5. Rieva,
    Thank you for an excellent article. I have been an entrepeneur for almost 30 years and have had many employees come and go. These comparisons will help many managers as they experience the frustrations of employee relations.

    John Adams – blog –