How to Bridge Generation Differences by Focusing on the Individual
Logic often rules the workplace. We look at our systems, our programs and our people and want them all to fit very nicely into the well-defined boxes that we create for them. Life is easier when there is no drama, no chaos, no problems. The secret hope of our organizations' managers is that everyone does what he or she is told, plays along nicely with others, stays motivated and produces work with little supervision. They want things to be simple.
Of course, as organizational leaders we know better. We know that this simplistic line of thinking is unrealistic and dangerous. It's unrealistic because, let's face it—no matter how much we want people to fit into our preselected models of success, they don't. In reality, people are messy, unique, dysfunctional, loyal, stubborn, brilliant, apathetic, creative, caring...and so on. We should want individuals on our team because of their diverse passions, knowledge and talents that our organizations desperately need. The danger lies in rote conformity, which kills engagement.
So why, then, do we focus so much time on putting our employees into neat and tidy generational boxes? We want answers for the way that someone behaves. We want it all to make sense. We also want to create the type of environment in which individuals want to work, attracting the next generation.
The problem is, no matter how much we strive to offer predetermined programs and models that fit the latest generation, each person is an individual who requires more from us. Sure, there are trends, characteristics, and best practices that we can look to adopt, but we need to innovate more fully to make sure that individuals, rather than generations, drive our efforts.
What's important to someone from the Traditionalists generation? How is this different from what Millennials want? How can we engage Baby Boomers and Generation X, and still plan for Generation Z's arrival into the workforce? Have we lost the art of helping people engage and interact openly and honestly with each other?
Most surprising to me is how much individuals vary from the generational trends that they are typically associated with—they all want different things. I've seen Millennial employees adopt Traditionalists behaviors and Baby Boomers employ Generation Z traits. Yes, generational trends and technological advances should and do drive our workplace strategies, but innovating and doing more to fully engage each person as a unique individual should really be our top priority. Our goal should be to look at the best traits that each generation, each individual, brings to the table and then adapt accordingly.
Using only our biases to craft solutions creates a disservice for employees. Instead, we should work to remain in service to our people, facilitating their efforts to bring their best selves to work every day. The more we can help them learn from each other and help them understand the "whys" of what we do, hopefully, the more we'll learn how to engage them personally.
Please join me at the 2016 Great Place to Work® Conference on April 6-8, where I'll be continuing the discussion of how we can use generational theory to work for us—rather than against us—to meet the unique needs of all individuals.
The more we can see who our employees really are and how we can value them for what they bring to the workplace, the more we will be able to engage them, regardless of with what generation they identify. I'm looking forward to meeting you there!
Tracy Laurie is Director of Staff Training and Development at Perkins Coie, LLP, a 14-time Fortune 100 Best Company to Work For® winner.