Managing teams consisting of different generations is a growing challenge for leaders, but if this challenge is not constructively and proactively addressed, it can have a substantial negative impact on affected employees and ultimately the organisation.

“As more and more people put off retirement until later, whether by choice or necessity, we now have multiple generations represented in the workforce, who need to be able to work in harmony despite differing life experience and attitudes, behaviours and expectations,” said Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, a leadership strategist and founder of Jack Hammer.

She said that despite the mandatory retirement age, people in general are working until they are much older, whether it be in permanent, formal or consulting/part-time capacities. This means that the staff complement in organisations is now much more likely to consist of people of all ages.

With the result that more than before, leaders are required to lead multi-generational teams, which include so-called pre-boomers, baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y (also referred to as millennials) – a situation which predictably can give rise to conflict.

Goodman-Bhyat said that although every good leader in a South African organisation is expected to be sensitive and responsive to issues relating to gender and racial diversity, putting issues relating to multi-generational diversity on the back-burner can prove a costly mistake.

“The biggest challenge in managing multi-generational teams is as a result of the differences in values, priorities, motivations and approaches to work of team members. How this manifests is in simple things like work tenure is that the younger generations are likely to change jobs every few years to achieve the variety, breadth of scope and opportunity to try new things that they value highly.

“The older generation has a different value system. They see the short tenure and frequent moves as a lack of commitment, loyalty and staying power, and rate a potential candidate’s suitability for a job based on their own values.”

She said until recently it has been the older generation that was firmly in the leadership seat. But with the oldest millennial aged 39, the younger generation is increasingly starting to manage businesses and people.

“Challenges related to generational differences can manifest in much bigger conflicts, particularly around work style, engagement and leadership. Absent perspective and insight into the different value systems, and competing priorities and values at leadership levels, multi-generational workforces can find it tough to work together,” said Goodman-Bhyat.

“Think about it like parenting. If the parents are not on the same page, the kids will run wild, play one up against the other and take advantage of their weaknesses. We now have people in management with different sets of values and views of the world. They are required to effectively lead teams made up of multiple generations. This kind of incoherence can be unsettling for people and can result in toxic work cultures that lead to reduced productivity and reduced engagement, which ultimately impacts on a company’s culture and its bottom line.”

But the good news is that in South Africa, managers are for the most part well-positioned to deal with a multi-generational workforce, because managing other kinds of diversity is already core to their working reality.

“Leaders may already have some experience in dealing with conflicts that can arise. At the very least, most professionals will have a level of consciousness and awareness about issues related to diversity. 

“However, inter-generational issues in the workplace haven’t been given as much attention and energy as other areas of difference and diversity. As a result of being left behind in the shadows, there is often background friction manifesting in toxic behaviours that undermine and discriminate unfairly.”

It is, therefore, essential that this area of diversity management should also be given due attention, she said.
“If the ultimate goal is a cohesive, productive environment, the strategy for managing generational diversity is nothing new. Firstly, it requires recognition of the issue and its potential consequences if left untended. Then, the approach must be to ask questions, listen and seek to understand.

“Recognise your own culture or values bias when you start making judgements about someone based on their generation or age. These days, we’re all hyper aware of the biases and consequent judgements we make due to gender or racial diversity; generational diversity is the next area for serious attention.” Goodman-Bhyat concluded.

Supplied by Meropa Communications on behalf of Jack Hammer

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