How to Lead the Multigenerational Team

Full disclosure: I am a millennial.

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According to Jeremy Clopton, if you are asking yourself how to deal with millennials or what to do with baby boomers in the workplace, you are asking the wrong questions. “The worst thing you can possibly do is say how do I manage 'the millennials,'” Clopton said. “You don’t have a millennial or a boomer; you have an employee.”

Clopton, CFE, CPA, ACDA, CIDA, and owner of What's Your SQ, led an educational session today about leading the multigenerational team and working with a diverse group of people that now spans five different generations.

Clopton defined the generations and listed some of each’s significant events to help provide context around the priorities and values of each:

  • Traditionalists: individuals born before 1945; ages 73 and up. Defined by World Wars I and II, as well as the Great Depression. Born before television and sliced bread.
  • Baby boomers: individuals born between 1945 and 1964; ages 54-72. Period of progressive activity, including the civil rights movement and Woodstock. Television became a household item, Watergate occurred and the Vietnam conflict took place.
  • Generation X: individuals born between 1965 and 1979; ages 39-53. MTV was one of the most defining events. Technology became commonplace in households, the divorce rate started to climb among the parents of this generation, and inflation and borrowing increased. The Challenger explosion was a defining event.
  • Generation Y (millennials): individuals born between 1980 and 1995; ages 23-38. Likely the most talked about generation. Key events include the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine High School shooting, the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the election of Barack Obama. The internet, iPhone and social media all came into existence. Lastly, a recession occurred just as many graduated from college.
  • Generation Z: individuals born after 1995; ages 22 and under. Marked by the growing frequency of school shootings and movements initiated through social media and they are still being affected by current events.

Hearing and reading these definitions above opened my eyes to some of the perspectives I simply had not considered when thinking about how I might see the world and the workplace differently than people from other generations. It reiterated Clopton’s premise that we are working with individuals with different needs, not simply a labeled demographic with assumed and preconceived traits.

“You need to refocus on the goals of the business and determine how you can leverage the perspectives and strengths of each generation to achieve those goals,” Clopton said. “If we focus on addressing our goals, we engage all generations in working toward a common goal and we remove the focus from the generational differences.”

Clopton identified five areas where we typically see conflict arise from generational differences and also advised on how to mediate it:

  1. Promotions and advancements and ambition. “Ambition shouldn’t be punished,” Clopton said. "When younger employees want more, nurture that ambition and engage them. Give them projects and trust them. We need alternatives to job titles for advancement when people are eager to do more.”
  2. Feedback. Clopton said that feedback doesn’t have to be a score or only part of an annual review, but rather integrated into your management style. He said to tell people when they do well, tell people when they mess up and help them accomplish their goals.
  3.  Loyalty. “Loyalty does not mean decades of tenure,” he said. “We have to have a different measure of loyalty. We have to show our employees that we are loyal to them also. It’s about mutual respect and it has to go both ways.”
  4. Work ethic. Work ethic looks different today than it did 20 years ago because of technology. "Hours worked does not equal productivity, especially when we are leveraging technology," he said. "Please forget about when you were my age or how we have always done it. That is an inhibitor to creativity and innovation." 
  5. Knowledge transfer: Clopton pointed out that newly hired employees now have some institutional knowledge when they arrive on their first day. Because of the amount of information now available online, they have already listened to your podcast, read your books and blogs, and have researched your online presence. We must see this as an asset and not something that could show up as entitlement.

In addition to these tips, Clopton reminded attendees that focusing on the root of the differences and not just the differences themselves is the only way to move past generational gaps. He said to focus on the business outcomes and that, at the end of the day, the labels, assumptions and preconceived notions are exactly only those things. Behind the veils of biases, there is an employee with unique perspectives, goals and contributions looking to succeed.