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Leading Different Generations May Require A Different Approach, But Don’t Pre-Judge

I was scrolling through Facebook posts a few days ago and saw a post that read something like “Just when you thought you understood the Millennials, here comes Gen Z.”  “Oh lord, here we go again” I thought to myself, “Labeling large groups of people and trying to make them all appear the same.”  This generational classification practice drives me crazy especially when it comes to leading people.

Trying to lump all people into the same category with the same beliefs, values, work ethics is like trying to say all dogs or cats in their breed have the same personality. Goodness knows if you have a pet or know anyone that does, all dogs and cats are not alike. They have individual characteristics, quirks and personalities even if they are in a specific breed.  Sure they have similarities; however, it is their uniqueness that makes them so special.  People are unique regardless of the time frame or worldly circumstance in which they are born.  In order to guide organizations effectively, people leaders must get to know, respect and lead each team member in a unique manner that is most effective for the individual.  The use of generational labeling may be useful to provide initial insights into a person; however, true leaders take the time to be interested and curious about the particular traits and characteristics of each of their team members.  When it comes to leading people, there is no one size fits all methodology as desirable as that may seem.

Today’s workforce continues to be a melting pot of generations, genders, races, cultures and education levels.  According to the generation labelers, the employee population consists of four generations who have their own values and work ethics.  Below are some key descriptors of each generation according to the generational “experts”:

Baby Boomers (Ages 52-70)- These people are what big business has relied on for years to be successful.  This generation are the “company” men and women who are loyal and do what it takes to get the job done.  They are the workaholics and have what is considered a very strong work ethic because work comes first.  They tend to stay with companies as long as the company will have them.

Gen X (Ages 38-51) – This generation focuses more on work life balance because they were the victims of their parent’s overworking.  They are focused on getting the work done so they can move onto something new or focus on the personal life.  These individuals will stay with a company as long as they are appreciated and allowed to balance their work and personal life.

Gen Y aka Millennials (Ages 21-39) – The Millennials are getting a bad reputation as the lazy “kids”.  In fact, they have a desire to work hard on their terms and for something for which they are passionate.  They also thrive off of recognition and encouragement.  They were raised to feel valued and positive about themselves and expect the same treatment from their leaders. They desire to have valuable experiences at work and in their personal life.  They want flexibility and freedom from their jobs.

Gen Z (Ages 20 and under)- Technology rules their world, yet they still enjoy human connection.  They are entrepreneurial with a desire to own their own business.  If they do work in a big company, they do not believe in working there forever.  Not too much is known about their work ethic and values as they are just entering the workforce.

Unfortunately, leaders have grown accustomed to using these broad-based assumptions when making hiring decisions and guiding organizations. Often I hear these generalizations made in personal and professional conversations through comments like “Kids today don’t want to work”, “We need more Boomers, they want to get the job done and are loyal to the company” or “People only care about themselves and not the company.”  I believe all people regardless of generation class or age have a strong desire and need to contribute and use their skill sets.  The best way to lead people of all generations is to treat them as the unique person that they are and don’t assume they fit the generational label.  You can do this with three simple actions:

  1. Be open minded and curious.

Instead of assuming a person is their generation label just because of their age, have an open mind.  If you are hiring them ask them questions about their work ethic, core values and what makes them motivated to work.  I personally know quite a few Millennials and each of them has a strong desire to work hard and do a good job at what they enjoy doing.  They are not willing to settle for just any job.  It is very important for them to feel like they are contributing in a meaningful way.    Conduct the same exercise for the people who currently work with you.  Taking the time to really understand someone shows them that you care and provides you great insight into how to empower them to be their most productive.

  1. Adapt your leadership style.

Leaders must be adaptable.  It is essential to meet your team members where they are and to lead them in the manner in which is most effective for them, not just what is easiest for you.  This is the one leadership characteristic that challenges most leaders.  Don’t get me wrong, it is not easy and it takes time and effort to master.  I made the mistake early on in my career by trying to manage people in my group the exact same way “My way or the highway.”  While it appeared to work in the short-term, this way of leading caused undue stress for my team members and myself plus lower productivity in the long run.  When I finally recognized that I need to adapt my leadership style to the individual’s needs, our team became more cohesive and we realized much better results overall.  It was not really that hard to implement.  If you have discovered what makes your team member tick, it is very easy to adjust your style to meet their needs.

  1. Appreciate and encourage diversity.

If you are a leader today, you will have a diverse team.  It is essential that you appreciate and encourage diversity in your team, especially when it comes to generations.  If you buy into the generational labeling, it may be tempting to want all baby boomers on your team; however, they many not produce the results needed to compete in today’s ever changing business climate.  Leaders embrace the differences in the generations and the uniqueness of their individuals.  They work with their team members to help them understand how the variety of work ethics and skill sets make them a stronger team.  Resist the labels and reward the uniqueness within your team.

While generational labeling may provide broad insights into people, it is not the be-all end-all way of leading them effectively.  The only way to be a true people leader is to be curious about the individual, adapt your style to meet their needs and appreciate and encourage diversity within your team members.  Let go of the generational labels, let people be themselves and unleash the productivity and cohesiveness in your organization.

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