Bridging the Workplace Generation Gap in Your Organization

  • April 4, 2018

There’s a lot of talk about differences among baby boomers, gen-xers, and millennials in the workplace. It’s a given that different generational groups will have different perspectives, but maybe we haven’t spent enough time exploring our similarities. The IBM Institute for Business Value has found that people from all three generational groups identify having a positive impact on their organization, solving social and environmental challenges, and working with diverse groups of people as some of their top career goals. And when it comes to attributes of the perfect boss, all three generations agree: they want ethical, open, and dependable leaders. People are the biggest differentiators for successful businesses—but people might not be all that different in their core beliefs and values. These commonalities among generational groups can help bridge your workforce’s generational gap and maximize the human potential of workers all ages.

People of All Ages Seek Purpose in Their Work—Help Them Find It

Businesses that have highly engaged employees report 22 percent more productivity, a success rate that’s two times higher and an employee turnover rate that’s 65 percent lower than businesses with less engaged employees, the Harvard Business Review reports. But there’s a catch: Your organization has to engage employees of all ages to achieve those organization-wide benefits. The solution? To value differences among multi-generational team members, while simultaneously using their shared core beliefs and values to build an organizational purpose that inspires everyone to achieve more.

The truth is, says leadership and employee engagement expert John Izzo, “Purpose attracts top talent from all generations.” And in an age of “social good,” in which employees from all generations want to make a difference in society, the environment, and the lives of others, it’s the job of leaders to “activate purpose” and “help bring out the latent good intentions and aspirations of employees to make a difference.”

Izzo’s latest book The Purpose Revolution (co-authored with Jeff Vanderwielen) shows that leaders “highlight how our purpose is integral to every aspect of the company and culture.” Additionally, making purpose real by showing how an organization “lives its mission” and treating all employees with respect and gratitude demonstrates that “the company is serious about helping people grow and succeed.” Also, by developing shared purpose, leaders ultimately build more cohesive multi-generational teams that are driven by the same high-minded goals.

Older Workers Hold Immense Knowledge; Create a Culture for Them Share

Most HR directors have come across the term “silver tsunami.” It refers to the 10,000 baby boomers who reach retirement age each day, creating conditions for mass turnover to hit HR departments like a “tsunami.” This phenomenon also has the potential to create an information gap as retiring employees head into their golden years with decades of valuable experience, insights, and lessons learned. A multi-generational knowledge transfer will be critical in the years ahead. Creating a culture of collaboration is a great place to start.

The goal, says high-trust workplace expert and CEO of Great Place to Work—the partner for Fortune's famed annual list of the "100 Best Companies to Work For”—Michael C. Bush, is to realize the full potential of all employees—not just so-called rising stars or top performers. Bush writes in his latest book, A Great Place to Work For All, “We mean bringing out the best in your people. Enabling them to reach their potential as human beings—to be as creative, knowledgeable, and productive as possible. This means they are reaching heights they may not have thought possible in terms of projects they undertake, skills they develop, inspiration they feel. Work is not a deadening place or one that is stressful to the point of being debilitating. It is a place where people come alive, where they get in ‘the flow.’” Bush lists credible leaders, employees feeling respected as people and professionals, and a view of the workplace as fundamentally fair as critical ingredients to creating a great workplace for all.

Creating this type of collaborative environment can lead to secondary benefits, too. Bush writes, “Millennials and job seekers of other generations are looking for organizations where they can grow personally and professionally.” That means they’ll likely value the knowledge transfer—not see it as a hindrance. Bush writes, “While business conditions have changed dramatically, people are still people. Trust is a universal requirement for positive interactions.” Bush also mentions that vast social and technological changes have reshaped the modern business environment, creating “a new business frontier.” In order to succeed in this new frontier, he warns, businesses must maximize the human potential of team members, regardless of age.

Younger Workers Bring New Skills and Perspectives that Benefit All

Generational myths have plagued millennials. In some cases, these myths have widened the workplace generational gap. We previously explored false generation myths that millennials are lazy, need constant praise, and feel entitled. Not only are these myths untrue, they can make older workers unreceptive to gaining valuable skills and perspectives that are helpful in today’s business environment.

The fast pace of today’s business environment has forced organizations to be more agile, says human performance expert Laura Stack, and technological and social changes have redefined what effective agility looks like. In her latest book, Faster Together, Stack adds, “Decades ago, senior executives could survey the business landscape, issue a command about how the organization would change direction, and expect to control the execution of that command. That old-school command-and-control model breaks down, though, when the time it takes to collect information for a central decision maker can mean missed opportunities.”

Millennials, on the other hand, have largely embraced agile work environments, which align with traits of the new leadership paradigm. Forbes reports that agile environments align with common millennial values like flexibility to adapt to changing problems, distribution of responsibility instead of a strict division of labor, fast response times, and autonomy to perform tasks as they see fit. To help older team members learn agility from younger ones, Forbes suggests informal discussions about “the new digital reality,” technology classes and training for older workers, and flexibility and accommodations for workers with differing digital skill levels. (For more on engaging millennials in the workplace, see The Millennial Myth by Crystal Kadakia.)

The Need to Recognize the Full Human Potential of All Employees

People from different generations have many differences and similarities. That’s a good thing. Values and priorities shared by team members from all generations can be used to create a shared organizational purpose that fulfills our needs to be productive, positive members of our organizations and communities. Meanwhile, older and younger team members can learn valuable skills from each other’s different experiences and perspectives. A key step is creating workplaces that allow all team members to realize their full human potential. The vital differentiator for successful business today is people—and your organization has to bridge the workplace generation gap in order to realize its own full potential.

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