Over the years, there have been endless discussions around generational differences among the workforce, and how we should treat the different generations to get the best out of them. When Millennials entered offices in the mid-2000s, there was much talk around how their expectations and approach to work created almost immediate friction between their generation and the two before it, Gen X and Baby Boomers. Today, we’re starting to see Gen Z, the youngest cohort, launching their careers, and there are concerns about how they might connect with the older generations. Yes, there may be variables from one generation to the next, especially around digital literacy, however it’s all too easy to ignore the similarities. In fact, research suggests that the generations aren’t all that different after all, and should be managed in similar ways as David Danzig, Director from O.C. Tanner Europe explains.
Are there generational differences?
So are Gen Z employees poor communicators who are more comfortable looking at screens than interacting with people? And are baby boomers ‘out-of-touch’ and inept around new tech? We can’t ignore the nuances of the different generations with younger generations naturally more tech savvy, for example. However, most assumptions are inaccurate – more imagined than real – with stereotypes only serving to hinder connection and collaboration.
O.C. Tanner’s 2021 Global Culture Report found that rather than wanting to hide behind screens, Gen Z employees prefer face-to-face communication and want to feel that they belong. They are also willing to work hard when given purpose, opportunities to grow and concern for their wellbeing. This is quite different to the stereotype.
Of course, there can be frustrations when different generations work together and these have to be navigated. For instance, when baby boomers interact with Gen Z or millennials, there’s a 26 per cent and 78 per cent increased likelihood (respectively) that it will be frustrating for the baby boomer.
In spite of this, each of the generations are more similar than they are different, and leaders can effectively manage a multi-generational workforce by focusing on what they all need from an organisational culture – a sense of purpose, appreciation and connection.
What brings all employees together
Employees of every generation need to be connected to purpose, accomplishment and each other. This means that leaders should create great employee experiences for everyone simultaneously by focusing on these three key areas. Let’s look at each element in more detail.
Connecting employees to purpose – 45 per cent of Gen Z employees want work that has meaning and purpose above and beyond earning a salary, and 30 per cent of Gen Z employees would take a pay cut to work for a cause they cared about. The different generations are linked together by a need for purpose in their work and it’s the responsibility of leaders to show how each person’s role fits into the bigger picture, contributing to the greater good. With employees who find a meaningful purpose in their work twice as satisfied with their jobs and three times’ as likely to stay with their organisation and contribute to its success, it should be a leadership priority. To tie everyday work to purpose, the company must have an inspirational purpose that can be communicated clearly in everything it does. If the organisation is a travel company the purpose might be ‘bringing families together’, or if it is a pharmaceutical company, it might be ‘innovation for comfort and cure’. By getting employees of every generation behind the company’s purpose, this naturally brings them together so that they’re all working towards the same goal.
Building a culture of recognition – O.C. Tanner’s Global Culture Report found that for every generation, the most important leader attribute was recognition. A leader that recognises accomplishment regularly will achieve greater success regardless of generational differences, and this must include a combination of career celebrations, achievement recognition and recognition of everyday efforts. Of course, how and where the appreciation is given should be tailored to individuals’ needs. Interestingly, Gen Z colleagues tend to prefer an experiential gift or meal out to cash whereas for Millennials, cash or gift cards and experiential gifts are equally desirable.
Building connections through ‘modern leadership’ – All generations thrive under modern leaders who provide support and mentorship, enable collaboration and help them to feel connected. Leaders must work hard to connect their teams to the organisation and their colleagues, as this helps to foster a sense of belonging. This is in stark contrast to traditional leaders who focus on authority, gatekeeping and control. It’s for the sake of all generations that organisations champion a modern leadership approach.
Don’t believe the stereotypes
There’s no denying that each generation has its own nuances, however it’s crucial not to let generational stereotypes define how you treat people. Most stereotypes are wholly inaccurate and can ruin how leaders connect with their teams. The four generations in the workforce today are far more alike than different, and leaders can provide great employee experiences for everyone simultaneously by focusing on key drivers such as purpose, recognition and connection.
CASE STUDY—HELPING EMPLOYEES FIND PURPOSE
It’s clear most employees (especially those in Gen Z) want their work to have meaning beyond simply getting paid, and the culture at global consumer goods company Unilever helps them find it with training designed to guide them to their own personal purpose.
About 3,000 of Unilever’s 9,000 employees have completed the training so far. The company believes connecting people to a purpose “enables them to bring their best selves to work, which is good for business.”
Jonathan Atwood, VP of Sustainable Business and Communications for Unilever, says, “We all want the same thing. We want to be part of something that changes everything.”