4 Steps to Managing Generational Differences

Companies throughout America are wrestling with the challenge of managing multiple generations in the same workplace. Each generation wants something different, which makes traditional “broad brush” management strategies frustrating for the employees and ineffective for the organization. In my previous article, I discussed the differences in each generation and the reasons why each generation feels and acts the way they do. In this article, I’ll share insights and techniques to manage through these differences and create a more effective team environment.


The frustration of managing multiple generations is very real. How are you supposed to pull all of these people into a team and get them to work together efficiently when they don’t use the same tools or even communicate in the same ways? Many managers I talk to worry about this a great deal. They are already stressed about finding and retaining top talent. The added challenge of generational differences makes this leadership task much more difficult.

It’s very easy to become obsessed by these differences as they seem to be the primary cause for friction between each group. As we noted in the last article, the different work ethic, values, and interaction styles are better understood when you look at the life events that contributed to these traits for each generation. Therefore, as a manager, you need to embrace those differences and use them to your advantage when leading a multi-generational team.

Knowing What They Want

Your first step to success is recognizing what each generation is seeking from their work.

  • Traditionalists/Silent generation. Organization with a culture of authority and respect. Prefer to work as an individual, with rewards offered only after the work is done. No news from your supervisor is good news.
  • Baby Boomers. A loyal employer, with a culture that respects work ethic and hierarchy. Team oriented and enjoy face-to-face discussion and interaction. No feedback is necessary, seeks rewards like titles and money.
  • Gen Xers. A trustworthy employer that gives them problem solving opportunities, autonomy, and competent colleagues. They are entrepreneurial and want to be a part of setting the course. Appreciates casual feedback and sees freedom is the best reward.
  • Millennials. An empathetic employer that provides meaningful work, and the flexibility to try new things and train for new skills. Wants to participate. Feedback is very important — on a very regular basis.

When you combine this list of desired work environments that each generation values, you can see a definite path to motivating and retaining a multi-generational team. Here are four steps to take with building that path.

1. Forget the past. If there is a better way to do something, take the suggestion. Although four generations may be part of the team, your experienced and proven employees may not always have the best ideas. If you want a millennial to stay engaged, give them a voice. If you want a Gen Xer to commit to the business, give them the opportunity to implement their idea. Always taking the opinion, or giving the project leadership to the senior person in the room will disengage your team, and result in slow or no progress.

2. Specific goals and expectations. Although each generation approaches their work differently, well-defined goals and expectations help to keep each team member on the same page. When working with multiple generations, you need to lay out the goals and expectations for everyone and then manage your feedback according to preferences. Mistakes are made when managers adjust goals based on how they “think” the employees like expectations set, which creates the perception of favoritism animosity in the group. The key in this process is not just setting the expectations, but HOW you communicate them, and the way you provide feedback on the activities.

3. Mentoring. Leverage the experience on your team and reward them with the boost in ego and experience they deserve by providing your employee with the opportunity to mentor. Each generation has different approaches to people and problems. Use those differences to teach your new employees options and ideas. Although managers are knowledgeable about the business, it’s difficult to be a complete expert in many of the details that happen each day in your business. Use the people that understand those details and educate your new employees with those who possess the experience. Including your employees in delivering training tends to reduce generational friction and helps to build teamwork.

4. Give them purpose. Regardless of which generation an employee is in, they all want to understand how the company is doing, where the business is going, and how they are a key part of that process. This is a perfect example of where a small investment in communication pays massive rewards. These conversations are not just limited to annual reviews, but a regular part of your daily, weekly, and monthly communication to employees. Take time to pull an employee aside to show your appreciation. Then, remind them of where the company is going, and how their effort is a key to hit that target.

It’s common for Traditionalist and Baby Boomer managers to believe promotions are earned over time and they may miss opportunities to retain younger employees by ignoring this step. Even if you might feel they are not ready for a promotion, the only way you can keep them long enough is if you put them on a plan that reminds them daily they are working towards something. Your employees need purpose. They need to be reminded the job they have today makes a difference for both the company and for themselves. Although personal goals have a place, your employees will work harder as a team to reach your organization’s goals if they understand how it leads them on a path for their career.

When not managed properly, generational differences will have a negative impact on your recruitment, morale, turnover, communication, teamwork, and overall company performance. But if you take the time to understand why each generation acts the way they do, you will be able to leverage your employee diversity and shift your team’s generational differences into success.