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Mind the (generation) gap

Mind the (generation) gap

Managing across generations at work can be a daunting task, so how do you communicate and lead a team of Baby Boomers, Gen Xs and Millennials effectively? A multi-generational workplace is now the norm across industries and having so many generations operating together in one workplace brings new challenges to managers and leaders.


Gone are the days of the ‘one size fits all’ leadership style. Managers are now recognising that old leadership styles from the past really don’t work anymore across this generation diversity.

Workplace research indicates that communication styles are strongly influenced by generational backgrounds. As a result, learning how to communicate with the different generations is a key challenge that leaders must understand in order to encourage high performance and avoid inevitable misunderstandings and conflicts.

Let’s take a look into what leadership styles have typically worked well in the past for the different generations:

Let’s start with the Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964). ‘Work to Live’ was their motto. Key importance was placed upon ‘having a job for life’ with a secure income.

Key workplace characteristics of Baby Boomers included:

As a result of these characteristics, Baby Boomers prefer a more ‘command and control’ style of leadership, which is task orientated. Work is more about getting results rather than the ‘way we got results’. They also respect the hierarchy of a leader and their position of authority.

Based on these traits, when a Baby Boomer leader says to another Baby Boomer, ‘We need to finish this project’, it is generally interpreted by the Boomer as a clear order, which must be followed and completed immediately.

For Baby Boomers in the facilities industry, this means a preference for sticking to the rules, processes, policies and guidelines. Decision-making is about ensuring decisions are made by a person with the required level of authority. Communication is also more formal.

The more ambitious Gen Xs (1965 to 1980), however, prefer to seek out a career rather than simply ‘getting a job’.

Key workplace characteristics include:

The Gen X manager is more likely to take a mentoring approach. It may seem that they understand their staff needs, but deep down their main priority will be getting the task done. A Gen X leader may say something like, ‘You really need to look after yourself. Just make sure this task is done before you leave today.’

Interestingly, this was the era that the sociopath in leadership began its trail of destruction!

If a Baby Boomer manager was to say to a Gen Xer, ‘We need to finish this project’, the Gen Xer is more likely to just hear this as a general statement or a throwaway comment. They will not perceive this as a direct command.

So what does this mean in the context of the facilities Industry? For Gen X employees, it is about following the rules (if they are in my best interest) and being more open to working around set processes. Gen Xers are also about making decisions themselves and then documenting it for evidence.

Finally, Gen Y, also known as Millennials, represents the most diverse of all the generational groups (1981 to 2000). They are now well-established within our organisations and are optimistic, confident and fully committed to moral and ethical principles. For Millennials, as long as their basic needs are met, making a difference is of huge importance.

Key workplace characteristics include:

Millennials who are managers need to feel that any tasks they ask of their staff have meaning and are aligned with the team’s values. They are likely to use a coaching approach, and assume that if it is a good idea, staff will take responsibility and just run with it. This can be quite confusing for the two earlier generations!

Considering the above, if a Baby Boomer manager says to a Millennial, ‘We need to finish this project’, the Millennial is more likely to question why it needs to be done in the first place.

Millennials have a fantastic contribution to make, but need to be in an environment that cultivates advocacy, continual improvement and innovation. To lead them effectively you need to discover what energises them to do their best work and then ask them to contribute. If you are able to help a Millennial achieve their potential, then this is effective leadership.

The facilities industry has an amazing opportunity here when it comes to collaboration – mixing the experience of the Baby Boomers and the creativity, imagination, innovation, risk-taking and focus from Millennials.

However, Baby Boomer leaders will really need to make the effort to connect to their Millennial colleagues. This means helping them to understand what makes specific activities important, and how they make a difference. Once this is clear, Millennials will jump on board.

Connection at a personal level is important too – showing willingness to share that great knowledge you hold, being available as a sounding board and responsive, and not waiting three days to return an email. Millennials live in the now and keeping their attention is key to their ability to deliver what you need. Decide on the primary way you will communicate with them and keep to it.

Millennials are also risk takers. So use them to innovate, and challenge ‘the way it’s always been done’. From a Millennial’s point of view, they need to have more respect for other generations’ experience, show up on time and be prepared. They also need to acknowledge that not everyone is online 24 hours a day and instantly ready to respond to their latest thought. They also need to learn to improve their communication with their more mature colleagues, which, for example, may mean not bombarding them with the same question or information sent across five different mediums.

There are more pronounced differences between the generations today than ever before. In order to be successful, our leaders must support our multi-generational workforce as traditional management approaches lose relevance. Effective authentic leadership is now more about adaptability and learning to connect with your staff in the way that works best for them.


This article was originally authored by Stacey Ashley, managing director of Ashley Coaching and Consulting, on FM Magazine.

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