The Value of a Multigenerational Workplace

Phrases such as “These kids don’t have any work ethic,” or “Those old-timers are stubborn and set in their ways” have likely been heard more than once by diversity executives. They’re typically followed by a groan and frustrated eye rolling because the people in question — the managers/co-workers/supervisors — represent another generation. One that is, presumably, not as evolved.

Browse the business section of or the local bookstore to understand the magnitude of this issue. Popular titles include Retiring the Generation Gap; Generations at Work; When Generations Collide; From Boomers to Bloggers; and Generations, Inc. Working with multiple generations is causing employees some pain, which can translate into lower morale, higher turnover and lost productivity.

Debunking Stereotypes
Considerable time has been spent identifying the differences and potential gaps between generations, but there is compelling evidence that we are more alike than different. With that in mind, diversity executives should work to create workplaces and cultures that nurture everyone, regardless of age.

It’s a fact that the workforce is generationally diverse. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the civilian labor force consists of 141.4 million people. Of those, 27 percent are millennials, 37 percent are Gen X, 32 percent are baby boomers and 4 percent are veterans. Aside from the veterans, there is equal spread among generations that will persist for years to come given boomers’ overall disinterest in retirement, thanks in part to the economic collapse.

But there are some misperceptions that each generation has differing, sometimes competing, values. In her book, Retiring the Generation Gap, Jennifer Deal explored this notion and conducted several studies on what values were most important to each generation. The resulting data showed not only did the generations prioritize their values similarly, but most of the disagreement over priorities came from within the generations themselves.

Deal found that, on average, each generation placed family, integrity, love and spirituality as its top values. However, integrity was third in priority by “early Xers” (born 1964-1976) while “late Xers” (born 1977-1986) ranked it eighth. After examining the differences and similarities of each generation and the individuals within those generations, Deal concluded that, “The generations’ values do not differ significantly — individuals of all generations differ much more from each other than any generation does from the others. That is, there are more differences within each generation than there are between generations.”

Values Versus Behaviors
According to Jim Antony, associate vice provost and professor at the University of Washington, generational differences reveal themselves not in the values we hold but in how we demonstrate those values. “For instance, someone who grew up in the ’50s and desires work-life balance may have it look completely different than someone from Gen Y,” he said.

Rather than focus on the differences between behaviors and judging which one is better or more acceptable, organizations can bridge the divide and create harmony by focusing on the similarities, such as the core values. Often, recognizing this will engender open-mindedness and flexibility within a culture, which is key when serving a diverse workplace.

Dana Pratt, training and development manager for grocery store chain New Seasons Market, said while she has provided training on multigenerational issues for organizations past and present, the issue landed close to home when she began managing younger workers. Always being mindful of her hours and creating work-life balance, she said her typical day began at 8 a.m. and ended at 5:30 p.m. After hiring younger talent, she noticed some of them would change into their soccer clothes at 2 p.m. and leave the office. At first, she was shocked. But at 10 p.m. that night, their work would come in, and it would be top-notch. “I realized right then that I had to adjust my mindset about what a ‘work day’ looked like,” she said. “Work-life balance can take many forms, and what works for me may not fulfill someone else.”

As Antony said, there is also a potential for discord in how different people demonstrate values. Take respect, for example. If one person demonstrates respect by showing deference to his or her supervisor, yet a co-worker demonstrates respect by engaging in healthy debate with said supervisor, the first employee might think the co-worker is disrespectful. That may impair the relationship, thus harming the product, initiative and goal that both are striving to attain.

The bottom line is, contrary to popular belief, many people share the same values. If there is friction, it’s generally due to the behaviors surrounding their values, not necessarily the values themselves. Organizations should equip their employees with tools to deal with diversity of thought and action. The following actions can promote positive behavioral change and help managers adjust to a mindset more conducive to generational diversity.

Employ mission-based hiring. Organizations that hire employees who are passionate about their mission often find generational conflict is less of an issue. Because they share a common thread, employees can navigate diversity topics with more agility and success.

According to Pratt, New Seasons Market employs a diverse workforce and enjoys a low turnover rate, which is largely due to employees’ willingness to have tough conversations with one another. “When your employees believe in the company’s mission and have internalized it, you can handle any kind of external diversity,” she said. “They will go the extra mile to explore their differences because they share the same core beliefs.”

Provide training. A desire to learn is common in all generations. Advancing leadership development, skills training, problem solving, team building and communication skills also can help members of any generation. Providing generational training not only will help solve misunderstandings, it will meet an established cross-workforce desire.

For instance, a 90-minute session on creating understanding among the generations can help to initiate dialogue and increase awareness. In the session, separate employees into groups by generation and have them identify some defining events in their lives. Boomers might identify the assassinations of MLK and JFK. Gen X might discuss the Challenger space shuttle disaster and being a latchkey kid. Millennials might talk about Columbine and the end of apartheid. While debriefing as a large group, each generation will gain insight about its peers as individuals, which helps to debunk sweeping generalizations.

During a session employees also could create a deck of cards where each suit represents common traits and characteristics indicative of each generation. For example, “I value freedom and responsibility in the workplace,” “I appreciate a hands-off management approach” and “I have a work hard/play hard mentality” could be cards within the Gen X suit.

Once the card decks are complete, give each individual a deck — without revealing what the suits signify — and ask them to sort the cards based on relevance to themselves. They will end up with a stack that contains statements they resonate with and a discard pile. Ask them to note how many cards of each suit they have in their “keep” pile, and then reveal the secret.

More often than not, individuals will have multi-suited hands illustrating commonality with other generations. Table discussions where each person describes his or her hand and the implications of his or her ability to work well with or struggle with other generations is a powerful way to deepen personal accountability while forging stronger relationships.

Foster curiosity and open dialogue. Given that core values are likely in alignment regardless of what generation someone belongs to, if an organization hires the right people, trains them well and promotes an inclusive culture, employees should be curious enough about their peers to work to uncover the truth when conflicts arise versus buying into their initial interpretations.

Individuals define values such as respect, collaboration, balance and family in unique ways, which can determine their behavior.

For example, if Employee A’s idea of collaboration means involving everyone in the decision-making process, it could be quite frustrating to Employee B, whose idea about collaboration is to gather a few key perspectives. Conversely, Employee A could find Employee B dismissive and anti-collaborative for involving so few people.

When faced with opposing expressions of the same value, it’s imperative that employees take the time to question their assumptions about one another. For example, when employees find themselves at an impasse with a project team or fellow employee, whether due to communication style, work style or conflicting priorities, rather than continue to battle, managers should encourage them to dialogue purposefully to promote collaboration and understanding.

Once the conversation starts, facilitated if necessary, it’s likely the two warring parties will realize they’re both after the same results. Then they can come up with a compromise that enables them to achieve their goal and maintain a positive working relationship.

For example, Employee A and B could agree to each select three individuals whose perspectives are most important to them as they work on this particular project. Employee A is satisfied because he has a choice in selection and can rotate in new people for the next project, and Employee B is happy because he has limited the opinions to a manageable number.

To create a productive, engaged workforce, leaders must avoid the generational stereotypes that have evolved from years of misunderstanding. Most often issues arise around values interpretation. Gen Xers aren’t lazy. Rather, they demonstrate the value of family as spending face-to-face time with loved ones. Boomers aren’t cold-hearted workaholics. Rather, they demonstrate the value of family by ensuring their loved ones are provided for.

Organizations need not modify their culture to suit each generation. Instead, organizations should be attuned to all employees’ behaviors and adjust policies, benefits and the culture to serve them best.

Halley Bock is the CEO of Seattle-based Fierce Inc., a global leadership development and training company. She can be reached at