Leading Across Generations
How to Establish a Rapport and Maintain Harmony Among Your Multi-Generational Team
By Chad Simon
Steve VerBurg, from Dale Carnegie of Orange County, says it’s important to find out the people and events that influenced each generation and what their tendencies are, because the more we know about them, the easier it is to understand what motivates them and communicate with them.
There are many challenges to leading multiple generations in the workforce, primarily being able to achieve a common goal while coming from different life perspectives and experiences. But before that can happen, you must earn each member of your team’s trust and respect. Because today’s world has gone digital, the younger generation is more likely to be in tune with the progression of technology than their elder counterparts. Each generation communicates in a different way, and each has different motivations—especially when you add cultural, age and racial diversity to the mix.
Five generations are currently in the workforce:
- Veterans (born before 1945). They make up 2% of the workforce. Most have already left.
- Baby Boomers (1946–1964). With 45 million in the workforce, the Boomers ranks are shrinking due to retirements.
- Gen X (1965–1976). They are the second-largest generation in the U.S. workforce at 52.9 million.
- Millennials (1977–1995). With 53.5 million people, Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. workforce.
- Gen Z (1996–present). By 2025, Gen Z will make up 27% of the U.S. workforce.
Steve VerBurg, from Dale Carnegie of Orange County, led a 2021 SEMA Show education session entitled “Leading Across Generations.” The following is his advice on how to be an effective leader when your team is comprised of individuals from various generations.
Key Life Experiences
It’s important to learn about the people and events that influenced each generation and what that generation’s tendencies are, because the more we know about them, the easier it is to understand what motivates them and communicate with them.
Veterans are typically “traditionalists” who grew up during World War II and the Korean War. Baby Boomers are called “loyalists,” who lived through the Vietnam War, women’s lib, civil rights, the Cold War and space travel. Gen X are the “latchkey kids,” who remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, single-parent households, AIDS, computers, the Gulf War, the Challenger explosion and MTV. Millennials grew up during 9/11, school shootings, environmental disasters, 24-hour news and social media. Gen Y are known as the “screenagers” who lived through the Great Recession, smartphones, terrorism, diversity, hyper-security, same-sex marriages, mass shootings and alternative
Different people influenced each generation, so they’re going to have different outlooks and perspectives. Veterans were influenced by Babe Ruth, James Dean and Frank Sinatra. Baby Boomers had Elvis, the Beatles and JFK. Gen X had Oprah, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and Madonna. Millennials were influenced by Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Gen Y had Barack Obama, Taylor Swift and JK Rowling.
“Each generation has become more dependent on technology,” VerBurg said. “The Boomers are tech adopters. Gen X are tech practical. Millennials are tech natives. Gen Z are tech reliant. Gen Z is known for having a strong work ethic and are more likely to bypass college and go directly into the workforce because they want job security.”
Criteria for Successful Cross-Generational Interaction
The keys to successfully relating to team members from other generations are to not criticize, condemn or complain. Instead, give honest, sincere appreciation. Arouse in the other person an eager want. Become genuinely interested in other people and remember their names. Be a good listener and encourage others to talk about themselves. Make the other person feel important, and do it sincerely by talking in terms of their interests.
“Be interested in generational differences, but know your own generation first,” VerBurg said. “If we know what’s driving our point of view, we can better empathize with another generation. We can use our emotional intelligence to adapt the way we communicate with them.”
Dale Carnegie wrote 30 different principles on how to communicate in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He said the first step is to have a relationship with people, regardless of their generation. If you don’t do that, they will be indifferent toward you and you won’t be able to build a rapport. After you develop that, move on to the next step, which is to gain their willing cooperation. If you don’t win them over, the best you can hope for is compliance; however, you’re going to get resistance. With willing cooperation, you can influence and lead them.
“When team members come to you with an idea and you immediately think of ways to make it better, you increase the value of their idea by about 10% and demotivate them by 40% because now it’s no longer their idea; it’s your idea,” VerBurg said. “Ask questions and be a good listener so it remains their idea.”
Avoid holding grudges; instead, have positive feelings toward them. Sometimes we have negative feelings or assumptions based on the age of the other person. Focus your attention on thinking, feelings and behavior, and recognize how your perception impacts your encounters. Be aware of the impact of your behavior on other generations. Whether it’s somebody you directly lead or you have to interface with customers from different generations, figure out a way to communicate better with them.
What Motivates All Generations?
A positive relationship with one’s manager is the primary motivation across all generations in the workforce.
“People don’t leave their companies; they leave their managers,” VerBurg said. “Thirty or 40 years ago, people would work for the same company their whole lives and retire with that company. Now, if they don’t like their manager, they’re going to leave. The Great Resignation of today has magnified that.”
Employees want their jobs to be stimulating and fulfilling and to receive regular recognition and appreciation. They desire a clear career path with growth opportunities and managers who respect a balanced life. Competitive compensation and benefits are usually lower priorities.
“People across all generations want feedback,” VerBurg said. “There’s a difference in each generation. We need to be able to give feedback in other ways besides patting them on the back and saying ‘Good job.’ Give positive, constructive feedback that will help them grow.”
When providing positive feedback, make sure it’s a bull’s-eye.
“Farthest from the bull’s-eye is if you give them feedback on things—for example, ‘I like your new car,’” VerBurg said. “People are prouder of their achievements (a promotion or certification). The middle of the bull’s-eye is when you compliment them and give them positive feedback on traits and characteristics. To make it stick is the evidence. If you were to say, ‘I appreciate your dedication. I saw you putting in extra hours to make sure the car was done for the SEMA Show,’ they would appreciate that more than saying ‘good job.’”
When talking about dedication, say things about them that they didn’t even realize. See in them what they bring to the table.
Generational Approach to Coaching
To be an effective coach, you need to be a good listener. Don’t multitask on your cellphone or do other things while they’re talking. For Boomers, involve them in task forces and recognize their efforts. Appreciate their foundational accomplishments and contributions that built the organization. For Gen X, provide numerous opportunities to learn new skills. Keep coaching brief and straightforward. For Millennials, show them flexibility and provide self-development and growth. Authenticity is critical; share both successes and failures. For Gen Z, show you care, be encouraging, and involve them in the process of creating an improvement plan.
When delivering constructive feedback to team members, gather all the facts, then address the situation promptly and privately. Focus on the act or behavior, not the person. Give the person a genuine compliment first before the criticism. Listen and observe, then identify their strengths and give them the evidence and feedback. Provide seven positives to one negative.
“Oftentimes managers will say they don’t have time to walk around and give feedback to their employees, but how long does it take to post a job and interview candidates because that employee quit? It’s much more time-efficient to give them 30-sec. feedback than to have to hire someone else,” VerBurg said.
Positive Behavior vs. Negative Behavior
Negative behavior is when you tell people what they’re doing wrong and what they need to fix. However, negative behavior drives negative behavior, because if the only time you talk to your employees is when they do something wrong, they could subconsciously do something wrong just so you talk to them. Whereas with positive behavior, if you give them specific things they’re doing right, it drives that behavior.
“People post pictures of their meals on social media looking for likes because it actually releases chemicals in their brain and they have a visceral reaction to those positive things, whether it’s a like or a manager telling them they’ve done something right,” VerBurg said.
Identify observed behaviors, values, accomplishments, successes, personality traits, qualities and attributes. Use a specific example. Explain how the quality will help the individual, the team, the organization and the customer. Recognizing the things that your employees do well will make them feel valued and less likely to leave the company.
“Practice makes permanent,” VerBurg said. “The more you practice coaching people, the more it becomes a skill. You also have to give corrective feedback. Listen, observe and evaluate. Identify the opportunity for your employees to get better at their jobs. Once you identify the opportunity, use a cushion to soften the blow, but also let them know you understand where they’re coming from. Not only do you have to tell them what you want them to do but also the benefit. Regardless of their generation, if you let them know how an action benefits them, they’re more likely to do it. If you’re focused on the outcome and why, then they’re more apt to say yes. If we’re just focused on the problem, then they’re more apt to get frustrated with us. Put it into context and you’ll be viewed as a clearer and more concise communicator.”