Unleashing Potential: The Limiting Effect of Seeing Your Workforce Through a Generational Lens

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Smart Business Philadelphia magazine.

In the workplace, managing generational differences can be seen as critical to an organization’s success. However, as with any stereotypes, using them exclusively to manage, lead or judge comes with great risk.

“Business leaders often focus on differences between generations, which makes it difficult to develop the leaders coming up behind them and ultimately, allow them to come to a level of comfort handing the business over to them,” says Bobbi D. Kelly, PHR, SHRM-CP, Director, Human Resources, Kreischer Miller. “Instead, leaders should also identify traits shared across generations in order to effectively motivate their workforce.”

Smart Business spoke with Kelly about how to look beyond stereotypes to more effectively manage an age-diverse workforce.

What can leaders miss if they look at their workforce only through a generational lens?

While there is a tendency to concentrate on generational differences, it’s equally as important to identify traits that people across generations have in common. For example, the following characteristics can help leaders recognize that focusing on positive traits can lead to positive results.

  • Strong Work Ethic: According to a review by the Journal of Business and Psychology, studies found there is no real generational difference in work ethic. Where the work occurs is where generations differ: Boomers hold strict office hours but will bring work home when needed. Xers will work expanded hours in the office and take pride in being the ‘first to arrive and last to leave.’ Millennials have flexible hours and are confident that the work will get done, even if it’s not how you would have done it.
  • Healthy Question of Authority: Traditionalists were the last generation that exhibited uninhibited acceptance of authority. Boomers, Xers, and millennials have varying levels of trust in authority. Boomers believe that hard work equals respect, Xers look for authority figures to prove themselves, and millennials will give respect to authority when they feel respected in return. The commonality among these generations is that while they challenge authority, they all have the ability to respect it, given the right environment.
  • Thirst for Knowledge: Each generation outpaces the previous in their pursuit of higher education. According to Pew Research Center, employed millennials were 35 percent more likely and Xers 18.75 percent more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher when they were between the ages of 25 and 29 than baby boomers in that same age bracket. While each generation values training and education, boomers see it as a reward, Xers see it as security and millennials see it as necessity. All generations have a desire to grow and learn in their careers. Knowledge transfer is one of the greatest challenges between generations because it feels like a monumental task to get the next generation up to speed on years of amassed knowledge.
  • Recognition: According to a 2018 study by the MidAtlantic Employers’ Association, over 50 percent of Xers and millennials, and almost 50 percent of boomers, look for recognition and reward. Recognition for a job well done is a driver of almost all humans. The different generations value different types of recognition; boomers feel recognized by financial reward, Xers feel rewarded by time off, and millennials feel recognized by praise from superiors. This factor that we all have in common is heavily affected by the life cycle stage an employee is in. When it comes to recognition, it’s critical to ask for clarification on what it is that the next-generation leader you are developing values as a reward. Just because Xers value time doesn’t mean they don’t value money, and just because millennials value reassurance doesn’t mean they don’t value time.

How should leaders apply these insights to their workforce?

In order to avoid limiting (or failing to identify) potential by seeing your workforce only through generational stereotypes, keep in mind that everyone is an individual. Generations are lenses to help us understand, but at the end of the day, we are more alike than we are different. Acknowledge what your workforce has in common instead of focusing on how they are different. Roots are just as important as wings. Successful ‘older’ generations understand that you must provide both to the next generation.

Bobbi D. Kelly can be reached at Email or 215.441.4600.

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