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August 5, 2011
The Great Generational Divide
In today’s unpredictable work environment, employees are joining the workforce sooner and staying longer, resulting in more generations in the workplace than at any other point in history. Having multiple generations in the modern workplace creates a clash of work styles, attitudes, and ways of getting work done. The challenge is getting each generation to recognize the benefits the others bring to the table and how to leverage those strengths to meet business goals.

In order to determine what makes each generation unique, we need to dissect what has formed and shaped the defining characteristics of particular generations throughout the years.  

Generation Born Between Social/Environmental Factors Tendencies
Traditionalist 1925–1945 Great Depression, WWII Prefer defined Leadership, Hierarchy
Boomers 1946–1964 Vietnam, Minority Rights Dreamers, Team-Building, Question Authority
Gen X 1965–1979 Latchkey Kids, Divorce Rates Distrust Institutions, Flexible
Gen Y 1980–2000 Helicopter Parents, Internet Work in Teams, Not Loyal to Companies

Based on the table above, it is easy to see the vast differences and characteristics one generation can bring into the workplace. The challenge is that by combining four generations, naturally different expectations are created for the relationship between employees and employers/managers.

So you might ask: How does one go about working with so many different personalities, backgrounds, and styles? The key to working within the new norm is to accept differences and communicate. It takes an open mind and the emotional intelligence to recognize these differences as opportunities. Overcoming these generational obstacles can be attained through self-awareness, tolerance, active listening and mentoring as well as reverse mentoring.   

The first challenge is taking a look inward. For example, how do you impact your team, what is your influence, and do you have a bias toward working a specific way? Your peers or colleagues may have different attributing factors — environmental, cultural, or personal — that influence work behavior. For example, a Traditionalist may tend to follow each step of a process methodically while a Gen X may be more apt to find a solution by performing tasks out of sequence and involving a team to come up with a solution. As a result, friction may develop between the two generations because of the style differences in style. To alleviate possible discord, it is important to look within first rather than criticize the other for not working the “right” way. By acknowledging and better understanding one’s preferences for working in a specific way, it may be easier to accept another way of accomplishing the same task.

Employers also need to demonstrate tolerance for the different methods in which employees get work done. Baby Boomers and Gen Y tend to have a greater need for work-life balance as a result of witnessing companies’ apparent lack of loyalty to employees. However, the Traditionalist and Gen X groups tend to have more of a focus on working longer hours. Allowing employees to practice the style that works best for the individual, as long as the work is accomplished on time and done well, results in the employer maximizing production and engagement from employees.   

Employees and employers can also improve relationships by actively listening to the other. Actively listening is different than just hearing what a person is saying. Many walk into a situation where they see a behavior that appears undesirable and then they make an assumption based on a generalization or preconceived notion. To actively listen requires one to listen without judgment, paraphrase what the individual communicated, check in for understanding, and show empathy. By adapting this behavior it will be easier for one to determine the true root cause of an issue during conversations and potentially derive a solution that is more beneficial based on having all of the necessary information.

Another organizational tool that is beneficial for employees learning to work better together is to establish a mentoring or reverse-mentoring relationship. For example, let us partner a Traditionalist and Gen Y. The Traditionalist employee mentors the Gen Y on best practice in the industry and historically what has helped win business. Then, the Gen Y employee reverse mentors the Traditionalist on social networking and the advantages of using such services as business tools. By sharing these key learnings, the partners form a relationship, build trust, and share a knowledge base that might otherwise go untapped as an internal resource.

To conclude, successful companies will be those that thrive through hiring and retaining a diverse workforce, not only in race, color, gender, religion, and national origin, but also by employing multiple generations of employees. By doing so those companies will promote the ability to collaborate and be able to draw upon a vast array of life experiences to come up with the next “Big Idea.” By leveraging these experiences, companies and employees will gain a cultured and worldly perspective which will translate to effective solutions for their client base.

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As the Talent Manager at Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago, Lauren Loeb is responsible for Human Resources support of the Chicago and Experiential offices including strategic staffing, employee relations, performance management, and special projects. She has been with Ogilvy for over five years and has seven years of dedicated Human Resources experience.  Lauren received a B.S. in Management from Indiana University. She is PHR certified and a current member of SHRM and HRMAC.

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