People of our time

ServiceMuse - People of our time

Michelle Major-Goldsmith looks at how to manage and utilise a multi-generational workforce.

Service management people

Every time you stand still long enough to look at our digital world, you’ll notice it has changed. As corporate IT moves further away from being a technology-centric discipline and towards one with a much greater focus on human engagement, the skills required of service management professionals will need to evolve. This evolution will impact our people, their skills and preferences, so as leaders and managers we must consider how best to support the continual professional development of different types of people.

The challenges of cross-generational teams

We all work in multi-generational workplaces and there is a name, a ‘label’ and some defined attributes and characteristics for each one:

  • Traditionalists – born before 1946 (hardworking, loyal, willpower, respect authority, waste not want not)
  • Baby Boomers – born between 1946 and 1964 (ambitious, optimistic and loyal)
  • Generation X – born between 1965 and 1976 (individualistic, resourceful, self-reliant, sceptical of authority)
  • Generation Y, or Millennials – born between 1977 and 1997 (creative, hopeful, achievement-oriented)
  • Generation Z – born after 1997 (highly energetic, enthusiastic, lack social skills, multi-taskers)

The question is… are there predominant and different traits across generations that we need be aware of and deal with?

There are two main schools of thought about this. One suggests that generational labels such as Millennials and Baby Boomers and their characteristics are useful ways of simplifying the diversity of the people around us. The other school suggests that, on the contrary, these labels are constructs that have replaced a real understanding of the individuals in any given generation with false assumptions about that generation.

But are the specific characteristics that each of these labels suggest, accurate or even appropriate?

Let’s consider why this might matter…

The truth is that people are working longer, and this has created some interesting dynamics. Let’s take organisational hierarchies, for example. Age is not, and indeed should not be, an indicator for hierarchical seniority and so it is common in the modern workforce to see someone younger managing someone older.

Of course, how this works is certainly not always easy to determine. Like any working relationship it is based on factors such as the individual personalities and organisational culture and structure.  It may lead to tension on both sides. Maybe the older person may feel “Why am I being bossed around by someone without a lot of experience?” On the other hand, maybe the younger person feels insecure and wonders “How do I do this? Does this person I am supposed to manage have more experience than me?

An HBR article (1) I read suggested:

“It’s important to be aware of generational tension — loosely defined as a lack of respect for someone who’s of a different generation from you — among colleagues” … “It’s your job to help your employees [as a leader or manager] recognise that they each have distinct sets of skills and different things they bring to the table.”


Of course, managing, motivating and retaining employees is a challenge for any organisation. But, are there unique generational characteristics that leaders and managers must recognise to support this?

So, are there differences?

My belief is that these generational characteristics are largely false constructs of social fictions. While people of a certain era will share traits based on socio-economic and cultural factors, it is dangerous to generalise and label. If we do so carte blanche, we ultimately forget to understand individuals and we make false assumptions about the generation.

While there are published studies that show generational trends, like with any research, they need to be considered with caution. It is important not to define an individual by their broad demographic group. The key is to look beyond these definitions and identify people’s individual talents, personalities and preferences. While generational stereotypes are intended to help foster understanding of generational differences, if we rely on them too much they can lead to unfair labels and discrimination with a consequence that people, and indeed teams, perceive each other differently than they really are.

Within the same HBR article there is a suggestion that:

“There is no evidence that 35-year-old managers today are any different from 35-year-old managers a generation ago.”

If this is so, then it supports that we are all individuals and certainly shouldn’t be put into stereotypes. While I agree we will have preferences and perceptions based on our experiences, it is over-simplistic to suggest that this is simply a generational manifestation.

People are people…

Behaviours, skills and beliefs add diversity, but this isn’t just generational; there are ethnic, gender and cultural elements that also play a role. A mix of generations (and those other elements) adds diversity to a workforce and doesn’t mean it should create additional challenges and obstacles. The differences between individuals, not socially constructed groups, can be turned into an advantage and an opportunity to grow and evolve. Everyone brings assets to the workforce, no matter how experienced they are. The most important thing managers and leaders can do is to create an environment where people understand and appreciate various points of view, even if they differ from their own.

Building a cross-generational team

While understanding that different perceived mindsets and tendencies of different generations may require consideration, it is important to make sure that this doesn’t create a fragmented workforce. Engage people of all ages so they build relationships with each other. Appeal to the right people in the right way and you will have a workforce that operates beyond mere policies and processes.

Below my tips for building cohesive cross-generational teams:

Ditch the labels

While it’s good to consider different approaches to work it is unhelpful to push individuals into ‘a box’ based on age. Stop talking about generational differences. Asking about individual preferences and styles is key to creating cohesive and productive teams.

Develop cross-generational mentoring

Invest in reverse or reciprocal mentoring programs, which pair younger workers with seasoned employees to work on specific business objectives. To develop digital services, we need cross-functional teams and people with a range of skills from all parts of an organisation. Younger and older employees can mentor one another in unique ways. Younger people were weaned on technology and these are the perfect go-to people for tech questions or to focus on the latest trends in that space. Similarly, an older team member might be able to give significant insight on career growth based on his or her wealth of expertise.

Colleagues learn more from each other than they do from formal training, which is why it is so important to establish a culture of coaching across age groups. This supports the 70/20/10 approach to learning (2).  This model for learning and development is a commonly used formula to describe the optimal sources of learning. It holds that individuals obtain 70 percent of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others, and 10 percent from formal educational events.


Look for commonalities

As human beings we often share more commonalities than divisions. Embrace what people share, not what divides them. Not only does this build collaboration, but it also helps to build trust across teams generally.  Don’t create generation-based employee affinity groups – they generally reinforce stereotypes.

Just as you would research a new product or service, you need to study people and the current and future workforce to determine what they want out of their jobs. Figure out what matters to different employees.  Use workshops and other gatherings to ask about your employees preferred communication style, working environment and planned careers paths. A lot of things will be similar across people of all ages and knowing where there are differences means they can be catered for in an inclusive fashion

Provide ‘Leadership’ opportunities for all

For far too long leadership has been synonymous with hierarchical seniority. Give those who want it, opportunities to lead.

Treat everyone, from the newest recruit to the most seasoned employee, as if they have great things to offer. It can be a method for engaging more youthful staff and enabling them to share their own skill sets and background. It will help to canvas different ideas and allow the choosing of the best one. While established, time-tested methods may end up being the best approach to doing something, individuals should remain open to innovation and change rather than defaulting to “the ways things are done”.

When planning teams and work allocations try to mix and match employees of all generations. The more chances people have to work with different colleagues, the more opportunities you provide for them to broaden their horizons and develop relationships. This will mean that, even if differences exist, the relationships will be more easily developed due to friendships, trust and experience of working together.

Avoid a one-size-fits-all managerial approach

Instead manage people differently based on their goals, abilities and strengths. Evaluate employees based on who they are, not based on the generation they belong to. As mentioned earlier, people may have common attributes, but they also have individual needs. Tailor your management to every individual’s qualities, identity and aspirations.

So, while considering generational characteristics (in terms of experience, energy, etc.), what matters most, regardless of generation or gender or ethnicity, is how well you understand your employees as individuals.

Having an age-diverse workforce is a good thing

For the first time in history, five generations are working side by side. Having a good mix of people (ages, ethnicity, gender etc.) in your workforce creates an environment that is rich with maturity and experience as well as youthful exuberance. Organisations that hire across the generations can create a dynamic, multi-generational workforce that is beneficial to an organisation. It’s crucial that you understand how to ensure that your people rise above their age stereotypes and pull together to accomplish the goals of the organisation. Having managers and leaders employing the right strategies to support this, rather than reverting to stereotypical assumptions, is imperative to team and ultimately organisational success.