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How to Lead Multiple Generations in the Workforce

There are five generations currently in the workforce. The oldest workers represent the silent generation, who were born between 1928 and 1945, and the youngest workers are Generation Z, who were born after the year 2000. With more than 150 million employed people in the U.S. older than 16, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people across a wide range of ages are likely to cross paths in the workplace.

Mark Harris, a consultant who works with organizations on relationship building, employee and leadership development, managing diversity and organizational change, talked to Hardware Retailing about the challenges employers may face with many generations in the workplace and how to effectively lead them.

For insight from retailers who work well together across the generations, click here.

Hardware Retailing (HR): What do you think people misunderstand most about generations other than their own?

Mark Harris (MH): It’s important to note that almost everything has changed over the last 30 years in the workplace. The speed of communication, with the advancement of email, texting and messaging in the workplace, has certainly had an effect on how people communicate, and that’s really where misunderstandings stem from.

We currently have five generations in the workplace—the silent generation; baby boomers; Generation X; millennials; and Generation Z. This many generations working at once is unparalleled in history.

Something the younger generations misunderstand about older generations is that they are still working because they didn’t save for retirement, and that’s not the case. Many members of the silent generation and baby boomers were clearly more frugal because they came of age during the Great Depression. They may have also lost their retirement funds during the recent Great Recession.

But they also enjoy working and their life expectancy has increased, which keeps them in the workforce longer. However, because the older generations are still working, it means some of the younger generations aren’t able to move up as quickly.

When it comes to what older generations misunderstand about Generation X, millennials and Generation Z, it’s really about how the younger people view their jobs. For older workers, a job was about security and recognition. But for millennials and Gen Z especially, that doesn’t cut it. They’re looking for what they can learn at work, how they can improve, and they’re wondering about the social impact of their work.

There is also a discrepancy in how we perceive each other’s work ethic. Whether it’s in how formally we greet people or the way we dress, the different generations are looking at their jobs from different lenses.

HR: How can managers who are older or younger than their employees address generational differences?

MH: Managers expect to manage as they were managed and as they grew up. They should be asking themselves, “How do I adapt to the needs of people I’m managing?”

For example, different generations like to socialize differently. Some older generations prefer not to socialize with co-workers at all, while younger generations may like to go out in groups after work or on the weekends.

It’s about perception and what we think is right.

Managers should be considering how people outside their generational group grew up and where their comfort zone is in the workplace. Determine what parts can be incorporated into the workplace and what might not be appropriate.

Older workers, for example, were raised talking on the phone, while younger people are more used to text-based communication. While everyone should be expected to be able to answer the phone professionally, it makes sense to have older workers call customers to let them know their online orders have arrived and assign younger employees to texting or emailing customers who prefer that type of communication.

You can set professional expectations in a workplace and still accommodate people based on their needs as individuals, which are likely dictated by the era they grew up in.

HR: What’s the benefit of having multiple generations working together?

MH: It’s about valuing the difference people bring to the workplace. Each generation brings a different perspective, and it’s not just employees. Our customers’ perspectives are changing, too, and change is uncomfortable, but it’s inevitable. Those who don’t change will die or fade away. We’re seeing that in every industry.

Differences can create value, but we have to be open to different perspectives. Instead of hearing a new idea and saying, “That will never work,” ask “How can it work.” When hiring new people, instead of asking, “What don’t they have?” ask “What do they have, and how can we incorporate it into the business?”

The value that people bring to the stores is from their life experiences. Even if we can’t identify with it because we lived differently, we need to consider what value it can bring.

It’s also important to remember that every generation has questions or opinions of every subsequent generation. Stopping to ask those questions and find out how those opinions originated will help us understand each other better and work together more seamlessly.

About Melanie Moul

Melanie is the communications and content manager for the North American Hardware and Paint Association. She joined the NHPA team in 2016 as an editor for Hardware Retailing and now helps lead the communications team to deliver relevant, timely content to the industry.

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