10 Questions Answered to Help You Better Manage Your Multi-Generational Workforce

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Throughout our webinar on Managing Multiple Generations in the Workforce, we received many thoughtful questions and comments from attendees – so many, in fact, that we didn’t have time to answer each one.

Fortunately our great panelists agreed to follow up on the questions they weren’t able to answer during the webinar Q&A. Questions include:

  • Why do we have to change for young workers, why can’t they adjust to the way things are?
  • What are the best ways to create two-way mentorships between younger and more mature employees?
  • How would you address the seeming lack of boundaries between younger managers and their employees?

Continue reading for answers to these and other questions from our four panelists.

With young workers seems to come the disappearance of hierarchy. How do you help managers who see this as a challenge to their authority?

Bruce Tulgan: Much of our work is focused on helping organizations move from the old fashioned models of authority to new models of authority. Management/leadership without authority is very difficult and mostly unfeasible. Our research shows it just doesn’t work. Somebody needs to be in charge. That doesn’t mean authority needs to be based on seniority or another long-term hierarchical model — authority can and should be structured according to roles and situations and based on short-term transactional logic. Usually what young people object to is NOT authority per se, but what the authority is based on and how it is used. When authority is logical, clear and well implemented, young people thrive on strong leadership. What most managers need to do is get much better at the fundamentals of leading and supervising.

Lauren Griffin: A first step is educating managers on how businesses have been changing structurally.  Sharing examples of how other organizations are working along with trends that are seen throughout the business world show individual managers that this isn’t personal to them.  Another step could be, as projects arise within your organization, to pull team members from all areas.  If you have a manager who is particularly hesitant, nominate them for this type of project.  This is a great opportunity to let them see the benefits of working with people of all levels in a more informal manner.  As they experience some of the benefits firsthand this should help alleviate some of their concerns.

Wendy Slayton: All employees of all generations need to understand the structure and culture within the organization, and younger employees are no exception.  That said, perhaps what management is feeling from Gen Y/Z is more of their need to be included and have a voice – not necessarily a pure challenge to authority, even if it feels that way.  Offering training to leaders on specifically managing a multi-gen workforce may be helpful.

Many of my managers would ask why they have to change their ways to accommodate these young people.  They ask, “Why can’t the young people adjust their ways to meet my business model?”  How would you respond?

Lauren Griffin: Business models and work environments are constantly changing to adapt to both internal and external factors.  If our business models remain too rigid, they will quickly become obsolete.  Being receptive and open to change is a key success factor. Although young people may challenge your ways, the entire group may ultimately be the better for it.

Wendy Slayton: Coach those managers to see that the point is to get the best out of people and maximize their strengths.  Like it or not, every year brings a higher ratio of younger workers into the workforce.  They can fight it, complain, and face low morale and turnover, or they can try to adjust their management style for the greater good of the organization.  Their choice.

Bruce Tulgan: I agree with these managers’ sentiment, philosophically, to some extent, but there is a huge caveat which pretty much obviates the point — for better or worse.

Both how much you need to adjust and who needs to make the adjustments are simply a matter of what you need to do in a free market to attract, select, on-board, train, motivate, manage, reward and retain the very best people. For example, if you can hire workers who don’t have many options and you don’t ask for much, you won’t need to accommodate them very much. But if work conditions, management and communication practices, culture, training and rewards you currently offer are not getting you enough of the right applicants; if you are unable to get good performance out of the people you are hiring; or if you are unable to retain the best of them, then you need to look at your human capital strategy and practices.

Work is a transactional relationship: Employers want to get more and better work out of every person with the best possible attitude, and they want it to cost the least amount possible. Employees want to have as much control over what they do and how they do it as they possibly can and get as many rewards – financial and otherwise – as they possibly can. Unfortunately for managers they end up stuck in the middle, trying to negotiate those conflicting interests one day at a time. Work is an ongoing negotiation regardless of whom you are managing and how old they may be. And workers of all ages are thinking more and more short term and transactional. It’s getting harder to get away with weak hands-off management, and the premium on strong, highly engaged management is growing every day.

This is the strong direction in which employment relationships are going \. It’s just that the younger, less experienced people have never known it any other way, have no investment in the old-fashioned way and are much more high maintenance by rearing.

What do you do when your youngest staff members seem reluctant to use the telephone, preferring to use email or texting for all communications? How do we convince them that sometimes a phone call is the best method of communication?

Lauren Griffin: I think modeling this behavior can make a difference.  If you experience a situation where emails are going back and forth, pick up the phone and call that individual.  Typically you will solve the problem more quickly and effectively.  Then use that as a teachable moment right on the spot to illustrate that often there is just no substitute for an actual conversation.

Bruce Tulgan: Sometimes you need to require in-person and telephone meetings. In any case, it is very worthwhile to teach them some of the interpersonal communication skills they often lack (without realizing it) or with which they are less comfortable. That includes teaching them best practices for email communication, telephone communication, one-on-one communication and team meetings.

Wendy Slayton: This is a tough one and takes daily reinforcement.  Model the behavior and show the benefit of getting people on the phone to resolve problems vs. the quagmire of a long back and forth email chain.  Show them the benefits (save time, avoid misconstrued emails, build relationships) and encourage them by pointing out (if true!) how effective they are in their verbal communications.

How do we focus younger workers toward accountability for outcomes? 

Lauren Griffin: Take particular time with this group in establishing clear written goals related to their performance. Review these with them regularly and this will help them see how their own actions drive the outcome.

Wendy Slayton: Set clear expectations. Make a point to ensure they can see the “why” behind what they are accountable for (including the value of it), and truly empower them to make it happen.  Publicly recognize them or peers for a job well done.

Bruce Tulgan: There should be no unspoken expectations. The key to accountability is building an ongoing process of spelling out expectations, then monitoring measuring and documenting every step of the way. You have to keep score. And you have to get them in the habit of being asked for and having a full account of how their performance aligns with expectations. Put the rewards they want on the line. If you want A, you have to do B. Then you have to follow through. That’s why they call it “accountability.”

I find it challenging to train individuals in customer service positions because it is the most important, yet “entry-level,” role. What advice can you give for helping them understand and take pride in the importance of customer service, despite its entry-level nature?

Lauren Griffin: Use every opportunity possible to communicate how their role plays into the big picture of the company.  Share information about the company’s performance and strategic initiatives along with how they play into that.  It’s also helpful to have someone within the organization who started in that role and has since grown their career share their personal story with the team.  This can be a very easy way for individuals to see how they can progress within their own careers.

Bruce Tulgan: You need to sell them on the incredible transferable value of customer service skills. Being great at customer service will make you more valuable anywhere you go! Every customer interaction is an opportunity to learn and practice the great skills of interpersonal communication, problem-solving, sales and persuasion. Being great at customer service makes one’s job so much more pleasant, because it leads to positive feedback and interaction instead of constant negative interaction and feedback. Also ensure you’re both requiring it and holding people accountable for it.

What are the best ways to create two-way mentorships between younger and more mature employees? 

Wendy Slayton: Setting up the mentor/mentee relationship at the onset is critical.  HR or the mentee’s manager needs to make the following clear to the mentee to set the relationship up for success:

  1. Why they have been appointed a mentor to help them.  (purpose, benefits, examples of successful mentoring relationships)
  2. What skills should be developed in the mentoring relationship. (refer to mentee’s individual development plan)
  3. Who is the mentor and why they were chosen. (introduce background, strengths and rationale for them being appointed as a mentor)

Bruce Tulgan: This is the sort of initiative we help clients develop often. I don’t think this is a dilemma so much as an opportunity. The key is to NOT try to force mentoring relationships, partnership or otherwise.

According to our research and experience, the following are two of the best approaches:

  1. If you make it strictly a “teaching/learning knowledge/skill” relationship, then one option is to have individuals (of all ages) apply to be subject matter experts and have some criteria for gaining that status. Then individuals of all ages should be given a directory of experts so they may seek out specific expertise.
  2. If you hope to make it a deeper type of mentoring, what I refer to as “real mentoring,” then the best approach is to solicit for interested would-be mentors and mentees of all ages (or explicitly for individuals who want to partner in mutual mentoring relationships) and then conduct training both for mentoring and for being mentored, creating a matching system where individuals may see who is available with a process for initial dialogue to decide whether they are a good match.

How do you encourage younger workers with helicopter parents, who have always given them direction, to learn to be independent thinkers?

Wendy Slayton: Assign projects with a clear objective but without step-by-step instructions as to how to get there. Coach managers to ask, “What do you think?” before responding with the answer when younger employees’ come to them with questions or problems.  Let them know you expect them to come to you with both a thorough understanding of the problem and possible solutions. I like to request: “Make a recommendation.”

Bruce Tulgan: One step at a time! The key is to start small. Do the hard work of guiding, directing, supporting and coaching. Delegate small tasks, responsibilities and projects — one small piece at a time — and provide lots of coaching style feedback. Then give them a little bit more. Then a little bit more. All the while providing guidance direction and support. Along the way teach them the basics of self-management — time management, organization, interpersonal communication and problem solving.

What are some key tactics for training Baby Boomer managers to effectively manage younger employees?

Wendy Slayton: Highlight the successful multi-gen or heavy GenY/Z groups within the organization.  What are those leaders doing right? If needed, HR can facilitate workshops to help connect the dots between what the team needs from the leader with what the leader needs from the team.  Most importantly: Communicate. Have regular one-on-ones, or another forum, to facilitate open lines of communication.

Bruce Tulgan: My view is that most of the so-called experts on Generations Y and Z have got it wrong. They argue that since Gen Yers and Zers have grown up with self-esteem parenting, teaching and counseling, the right way to manage them is to praise them and reward them with trophies just for showing up. Among creating recognition and rewards programs, these “experts” tell managers to turn recruiting into one long sales pitch, rearrange training so it revolves around interactive computer gaming, encourage young workers to find a “best friend” at work, and teach managers to soft-pedal their authority. In my view, this approach is out of touch with reality.

The problem is that giving them what they need successfully is much harder than simply handing them what they want. The youngest generation calls for strong leadership, not weak. Managers should never undermine their authority or let problems slide, and should definitely not offer praise and rewards for performance that is not worthy of them. Instead, managers should spell out the rules of their workplace in vivid detail so Gen Yers can play that job like a video game: if you want A, you have to do B.

How would you address the seeming lack of boundaries between younger managers and their employees? 

Wendy Slayton: Often we promote younger employees into management roles, but give them no management training, and then we’re aghast that they do not change their behaviors.  Ideally, before they are given a management role, they should understand what it means to be a manager and expectations around setting the example – including appropriate boundaries. Every manager should go through a form of legal training (required in some states), which is another opportunity to reinforce conduct expectations like setting boundaries.

Bruce Tulgan: This is the advice I give new young managers:

While you were formerly a peer, and you are now a boss. All of a sudden you have power and influence in relation to your former peers’ careers and livelihoods as well as their ability to do valuable work that is recognized and rewarded. You are also now the primary link between those individuals and the next level of leadership. You now represent the organization as an employer. For your direct reports, you are the key to helping them get the resources they need to succeed, getting approvals, removing obstacles and facilitating their interactions with lateral counterparts.

That is a huge shift, and it will radically change your relationships with everybody at work. If it doesn’t seem to change your relationships, then something else is very likely going terribly wrong beneath the surface. Power changes relationships. That change must be handled with integrity and transparency, with diligence and rigor, with structure and substance.

Often I’ve seen new managers in this situation try to soft-pedal their new authority: “Don’t think of me as your boss. I’m still just me. We work together. I’m just one of the team.” That is, until there’s a disagreement, an unpopular decision needs to be made, a new policy implemented, someone needs to be held accountable or someone needs to be called out for special recognition and reward. Because all of that will now fall to the new manager.

I tell new managers in this situation, “Remember, you are the one who got the promotion. Live up to it.” You must own it. I learned this from a young mechanical contractor who was running a team he had worked on for several years. He told me, “You can’t let them make you feel bad about being the boss. The guys would say stuff like, ‘Hey Sam. You used to be in this position. You should know where we are coming from.’ And I’d say, ‘I was in your position but you’ve never been in my position. So remember, I do understand your perspective because I’ve been there, but I have other factors I need to consider now that I am in this position. Please respect that.’ I have been in that position, so I really do try to take that perspective into account. My job is to help everybody do a better job and have an easier time of it.” When you get that promotion and all of sudden you are the new manager of your old team, you have two choices: behave in such a way that your former peers wonder why you are the new boss instead of one of them, or else do such a good job so nobody will ever wonder.

What about when some of your new direct-reports are actually your friends?

If you are taking over a team on which you have been a member, it is very likely that you may have formed some friendships in the course of working together. Sometimes the friendship predates the working relationship. Either way, it can be hard to separate your role as the new boss from your role as friend. But that’s exactly what you have to do. As tempting as it might be to pretend you are still just a member of the team, you have to accept that you are in a different role now.

  1. Decide which is more important to you. If the friendship is more important, maybe you shouldn’t be the boss. Accept the fact that your role as boss might compromise or damage the friendship. Maybe you’ll decide that you cannot risk your friendship and thus you don’t want to be the boss. But probably not.
  2. Establishing ground rules that keep the roles separate. Say: “Our friendship is very important to me. My job is also very important to me, and around here I am the boss. When we are at work, I need to be the boss. When we are outside work, we can try to leave that behind.”
  3. Be a good manager. Protect the friendship by making sure things go really well at work. Minimize the number of problems, and you will minimize the number of potential conflicts in your personal relationship.
  4. Accept that the parameters of your friendship have changed. Recognize and embrace the fact that the work you and your friend have in common will become more and more the terrain of your friendship. That’s okay. With any luck, you both find the work you share to be interesting and important.

As much as you try to keep work separate from your friendship and your friendship separate from your work, the boundaries won’t always be clear. Take good care of your friendship by being a diligent, thorough manager and hope that your friend will do the same by helping you do that to the best of your ability.

For Generation Z, you suggest giving them boundaries and structure as well as helping them keep score. How does this differ from managing Baby Boomers?

Bruce Tulgan: There is no doubt that people of all ages benefit from stronger, more highly-engaged leadership. Any person – of any age – with a boss needs clear broad performance standards; regularly spelled out expectations for day-to-day tasks responsibilities and projects; ongoing candid feedback on how their actual performance aligns with those standards and expectations; and regular credit and reward for their work. Not only that, but any person of any age will benefit from much more structured regular communication with his/her leaders, not to mention all of his/her direct reports. In that sense, structure and boundaries along with keeping score are just analogues of the fundamentals of good management.

Having said that, you can take this to the bank: It is a whole lot easier to get away with weaker, less engaged management if you are managing older more experienced people – especially those with the Boomer mindset and work ethic. And the premium on stronger, highly engaged management goes up and up the younger the person is whom you are managing.

The younger the person, typically, the more structure and boundaries and scorekeeping they need. Gen Yers, and even more so GenZers, grew up with super hands-on parenting, teaching and counseling; constant structure and boundaries; and in an environment in which everything was monitored and measured. Thus they are always engaged in a constant feedback loop.

Bruce Tulgan is CEO and founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking Training, an on-line training company. A prolific author of books on leadership, management strategy and generational differences in the workforce, Bruce is a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader.

Wendy Slayton is a Senior Vice President of HR at Adecco Group NA – part of Adecco Group, the largest workforce solutions provider in the world. She has more than 18 years experience in HR leadership in professional services industries, and leads Adecco Group NA’s HR Business Partner team, which drives talent strategy for several Adecco business units in the U.S. 

Lauren Griffin is a Senior Vice President at Adecco Staffing, USA. She manages a multi-generational team, ultimately being responsible for 500 colleagues with diverse demographics. Her employees work in a heavily customer-focused environment, so she understands the importance of service excellence training.

Missed the webinar? Don’t worry!

For a full recap of our webinar, check out this blog post. You can still receive HRCI recertification credit if you view the webinar on-demand prior to October 10, 2014 – just be sure to fill out the form you see prior to watching.

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