The Secret to Managing Across Generations

Let’s face it; today’s workforce looks very different than those of the past — especially if you’re a manager. It is now very common for employee groups to extend across many generations, making it the norm for managers to also have to manage employees whose ages span half a century within a single department.

Individual roles are also shifting in a way that can introduce new tension into the workplace. An EY survey revealed that, from 2008 to 2013, "both during and coming out of the recession, there has been a significant shift in Gen Y and Gen X moving into management roles: 87 percent of Gen Y managers surveyed moved into a management role during this period vs. 38 percent of Gen X and 19 percent of boomer managers." This trend may cause some leaders to worry that their older employees may resent their younger managers, among the other challenges that age diversity can bring.

Generational differences don’t have to create a divide in the workplace. Regardless of the generational makeup of the company, managers need to view their employees as individuals with unique needs and personal reinforcers. To do so, assume that people want to be judged on their merits and not as part of some special generation. Managers ought to continuously seek out ways to understand why each individual exhibits certain behaviors and then identify reinforcers that are meaningful to each employee. That requires letting go of the assumption that people from the same generations have the same needs and that those needs are different from those from other generations. 

The science of behavior supports that people, regardless of their age or other stereotypical labels, perform optimally when the following three things are present:

  • Precise pinpoints of behaviors that are valuable to the organization
  • Frequent feedback on the progress or lack thereof on those behaviors
  • Reinforcement for engaging in those behaviors and when accomplishments are met

When you apply the science in this way, you will come to find the critical secret to managing across generations, which is really no secret — just the science of behavior and its availability to all. Managers must simply apply the tools and principles of the science to achieve positive outcomes from all employees. Sure, it’s important to encourage understanding between employees of different generations so as to avoid tensions and misconceptions. But ultimately, the best strategy for managing across the generational gap is to provide the universal framework that encourages positive behavior.

To encourage high levels of collaboration between employees of all ages, managers should incorporate the following.

  1. Define the specific behaviors that are valuable in the job.Age differences become much less of an issue when every employee has a clear understanding of what good performance looks like. When expectations are clearly communicated and understood, employees will understand their role and the performance that is expected of them.
  2. Provide timely and specific feedback. Regardless of an employee’s reinforcement history, pinpointed feedback is necessary for performance improvement. Let employees know what they are doing well and where they need to improve. The best job you will ever have is one where at the end of the day you know how you’ve done, the good and bad.
  3. Create opportunities for employees to have input on how company targets are achieved. The best managers don’t tell their employees what to do. They are constantly asking them for advice on how to solve a problem. All age groups work better together when they feel valued and feel reinforced for the skills they bring to the table. Few things cause employees to be engaged more than participating in the design of systems and processes that they use in their work.
  4. Deliver positive reinforcement early and often. At the start of a new project or task, your employees will respond to a steady stream of positive reinforcement to get them on track and keep them there. As time goes on, the desired behavior will become self-sustaining and managers can look for other new desired behaviors to reinforce so that improvement continues. Do not take hard work for granted. We call hard work discretionary effort. Of course, hard work should be directed toward achieving valuable targets. Hard work on trivial tasks is trivial.
  5. Be patient with the shaping process. Supporting this framework for effectively managing across generations is an ongoing process. Shaping is defined as the positive reinforcement of successive approximations toward a goal. It is appropriate to reinforce even the smallest improvement. Shaping is a powerful tool that everyone needs to master. It often flies in the face of processes like stretch goals but is infinitely more successful. To learn more about shaping, read “A Guide to Shaping: Overcoming the Insurmountable and Eating Elephants.”

Following these steps not only will make employees happier in their work but also create high performers whether they are 20 or 60.