Managing Beyond Generational Differences

How big of a role does generation play in your workplace environment? As many of the most experienced federal employees near retirement age, younger people are entering public service. And, while there are many differences between us, how much of what we think we know is true? We are bombarded with stereotypical messages about generations, from books and articles describing Millennials as “entitled” and “whiny” to the social media meme #okboomer. These messages are not only inaccurate; they are downright harmful.

Defined by Generation

According to the Pew Research Center, there are currently five distinct generations in the workplace:

  • Silent (born 1928-1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980)
  • Millennials/Generation Y (born 1981-1996)
  • Generation Z (born 1997-2010)

Although there are major differences between these generations, many can be attributed to the sweeping societal, technological, and cultural changes that we have experienced. Parenting trends, education, and societal norms have seen all been through major changes over time. Therefore, we should expect the perspectives of young adults, their parents, and their grandparents to be significantly different.

Compared to their grandparents, the Pew Research Center found that Millennials (Generation Y) tend to be highly educated, racially, and ethnically diverse, with a large portion of women in the workforce. And, they tend to be detached from major institutions, be they political, religious, military, or marital.

However, an IBM study found that its employees of all ages generally shared the same goals of making a positive impact in their organization; helping to address social and environmental challenges; working with a diverse group of people, and working for a ‘best in industry’ organization. This demonstrates that workplace behavior between and among generations can be similar and very compatible.

The prevalence of generational biases and stereotypes are much more than a mere annoyance to those impacted by them. They erode morale and collaboration and diminish performance and opportunities for growth.

Internalization of Stereotypes

One harmful side effect of generational stereotyping is internalized stereotypes, which occurs when a person is faced with repeated stereotypical messages about their generation, to the point that they begin to believe that everyone perceives them that way.  When people internalize stereotypes about their identity group, they often experience “stereotype threat,” where they feel they’re at risk of conforming to negative beliefs about their identity group. Stereotype threats have been known to cause affected people to subconsciously perform poorly in tasks they are typically good at to reinforce the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moreover, biases about generations impact how people treat one another. In a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, trainers who were asked to teach older participants a computer task demonstrated lower expectations, and provided poorer training, than when they taught younger participants.

Know Better. Do Better

To better manage generational biases and stereotypes, leaders can:

  • Come together to reinforce commonality. Bring the team together to articulate its common purpose. Engage in activities to explore and celebrate individual strengths and contributions to the team. Conduct value exercises to identify core values shared by all team members.
  • Leverage the power of multigenerational teams. Be purposeful about building cross-generational relationships. Consider two-way mentoring, where a pair of older and younger employees support and learn from each other. Find creative ways for team members to get to know one another. The more we expose ourselves to the fullness of a person’s story, the more we diminish the impact of stereotypes in the workplace.
  • Eliminate any behavior that may be perceived as insensitive or reinforcing stereotypes. Be intentional about your communications, using inclusive language, and communicating respect to everyone equitably. Refrain from referring to younger employees as the “kids” or older employees as “relics” or “retired in place.”

Multigenerational teams bring incredible value to our organizations. Tap into that value by creating an inclusive environment for everyone to thrive.

If you would like to hear more about the Managing Beyond Generational Differences, I would like to invite you to join me at a virtual presentation on May 16, 2020, where I, and several of my peers, will discuss promoting excellence in public service through training and development.

Leadership & Management
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Maria Morukian

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