I remember when I was a child, visiting my grandparents’ house. My siblings and I would be watching a movie at a perfectly reasonable volume, and my grandpa would yell down the stairs, “Turn it down!” What? Turn down this amazing show that required a certain volume in order to fully experience it? Of course, we always followed his direction (he was 6’4″ with an incredibly booming voice), but we never understood how the volume was so loud to him when he was out of the room and all the way up the stairs when it sounded perfect to us.
Fast forward 30 years, and here I am, shouting down to my daughter and her friends during sleepovers, “Turn it down! I can’t hear myself think!”
While maturity affects our preferences for volume, it is also clear that generational differences shape our reactions to everything around us. When my mother was in school, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement molded her generation’s approach not only to politics but to structure and authority. In my teens, the burgeoning internet and increased marketing targeted at adolescents changed not only what we expect from brands – but employers. And in 2018, a teen’s day isn’t complete without a dozen selfies and even more social media responses – and we still don’t fully understand how that will affect Generation Z’s approach to work, relationships, and navigating life.
Can you believe there are currently five generations in today’s workforce? As generational effects intersect with gender, socio-economic background, race, occupations, and an innumerable number of other differences – how do you build a high-performance team with a workforce that can span eight decades? The generation ‘gap’ is more like a maze – and more critical than ever.
Changing Your Tune
How can leaders build successful teams that span generations? The answer is simple. Recognizing that each person and each generation is distinctive is the first step. Prescriptive approaches with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to a generation – are simply not effective. While there are trends for each generation (e.g., Millennials = tech savvy, Boomers = high accountability), each person is ultimately unique and affected by all the other qualities that make us unique.
This leads to the second step: ask questions. Asking team members inquisitive questions about their work needs and preferences has a similar effect to setting clear expectations – it helps ensure that everyone is aligned with the mission of the organization or project.
- Starter questions to ask a multi-generation team:
What motivates you – how can we make that happen more?
- What frustrates you – and how can I help?
- How do you like to receive feedback?
By asking these questions you show each person is important and that their opinions matter. Asking these types of questions doesn’t have to be formal – it can be part of employee onboarding or during a brief check-in. However, in-depth employee engagement surveys take the process to the next level by asking deep-cutting questions that can positively impact the overall success of a group or business.
But, once you’ve asked the questions, how do you use the information to bridge the generational gap?
Once you know what your employees need, the next level is respecting each generation and their answers. Using empathy to understand each person’s perspective can help. For example, while employees over 40 are protected from discrimination, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t treated differently than the younger members of the team.
Common complaints from more mature workers are that they feel excluded and like a less-valuable contributor than their millennial counterparts. From younger employees, we hear grumbles about being ridiculed and chastised just because of their age or stereotypes around their generation. No matter what the age is of your employees, it is crucial that the leaders in the organization act as role models by showing respect to all generations.
However, treating every employee with respect does not mean that every employee should be treated exactly the same. Cookie-cutter work environments do not work. Effective leaders adapt to each employee based on a multitude of characteristics – from age to personality, and from position to tenure. The most talented leaders are those who not only adapt in their leadership style from employee to employee but situation to situation, as well.
For example, if ‘John Superstar’ has been with the team for five years and is an A-player in his current role, he probably only needs a quick hello and brief touch-base each day. If his supervisor required hourly check-ins and constantly stood over his shoulder watching his activity, John would feel micro-managed and would be less likely to be successful in his role. However, if John is assigned a new task that is outside of his comfort level, he may value his supervisor checking in regularly and offering support throughout the project. If the supervisor maintained his usual, leadership style, John might feel abandoned and insecure. An insightful leader will see the need to adjust based on John’s needs and adapt accordingly.
Situational leadership enables you to successfully lead across generations and people. By asking the right questions such as those listed previously, a leader will better understand how to approach each member of his or her team in every unique circumstance.
From The Beatles to One Direction
Now to go back to childhood music story. Our music of choice helps define us, through the tunes and lyrics and rhythm we often find the answers we are looking for – many times the answers to questions we didn’t even know we were asking. For every generation, the sound that gives us those answers is completely unique. An Inquisitr article recently stated that One Direction surpassed The Beatles with new songs entering the Billboard Hot 100 at number 10 or higher . Fans of Harry Styles and the other members of the band will certainly be nodding in agreement – “Of course they did, they are the best band of all time!” However, Beatle-maniacs are probably cringing in their seats – “Who cares about one little record, let’s see if their music resonates 40 years later the way that Paul’s and John’s songs do!” In this debate, everyone is right. Because, you see, everyone is different and that is a good thing. We all interpret the music and the lyrics in our own way, just like we all have different strengths and opportunities in a work environment.
On another note, it is ironic that while listening to music comes so naturally, it can be so challenging when interacting with people. Regardless of whether an employee has “Yellow Submarine” or “Story of My Life” on their playlist, the best gift a leader can give is understanding: taking the time to get to know each person and truly take the time to hear them. When an employee feels heard, the employee feels respected and valued. This forms the foundation for performance and retention.
Turn the Radio Up
Having six or more decades present in the workforce is a huge opportunity. The most effective leaders will hit the pause button on their favorite station playing the same old tunes, and instead work to create their own music to build strong, high-performing multi-generational teams.
The next time you’re ready to scream because your employees are all listening to different songs, follow these three simple steps to achieve workplace harmony:
- Ask questions
- Treat every employee as an individual
- TURN UP THE VOLUME AND LISTEN