“For the first time ever, we are seeing four generations of employees working side by side in organisations.”
How many times have we heard this (or its similar incarnations) discussed at human resources roundtables or talent management seminars? Whether your reply is in the form of a cheer, a groan or a shrug, it is undeniable that this concern exists and we are still finding a comfortable stance in resolving it.
With a multitude of resources available at our fingertips, it is not difficult to obtain good, practical tips on dealing with the different values, communication styles and behaviors of each generation. One example of best practice in leading diversity is IBM, who created their Generational Diversity Programme based on 3As (Accessibility, Accommodation, Attitude).
These criteria are used to ensure that there is a fit between the employee’s life cycle and their needs. Having this programme embedded in IBM’s talent management strategy became one of the key reasons for its success.
Other examples include P&G’s online talent management system that allows key stakeholders in an employee’s career (including the employees themselves) to build a talent profile and plot pathways to their destination career.
Thus, this gives an opportunity for a more holistic voice to all those who are involved in developing an individual’s successful career. Try Googling keywords such as “leading multigenerational organisations” and the great examples are endless.
Yet, this leads to another question begging to be answered – Is such tailoring necessary for our organisations? How can we ensure optimal tailoring for organisational thriving and avoid issues such as of organisational fairness?”
Tailoring and customising can require tremendous effort. Depending on the characteristics of your organisation, these efforts can sometimes be the bane of cost-benefit analyses.
While tailoring talent management efforts is no longer a question of necessity, deciding the amount of tailoring needed for success is a constant challenge. There have been studies that show that generational stereotypes can be blown-out of proportion and can be an extrapolation of our own self-perception.
So, it is possible to have Gen-Ys who much prefer face-to-face communication and Baby Boomers who enjoy using social media to network. Try handing a new iPad to your parents who may be Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers and you might find that they actually enjoy it and are more engaged than you are.
Catalyst, an NGO that focuses on diversity and inclusion as its mission cautions against over-generalising and encourages organisations to address its stereotypes lest we end up perpetuating negative stereotypes which can impact organisational performance.
Ultimately, we have our differences and we need to manage these differences. But how much do we focus on these differences, and how do we make these differences work? Perhaps it is in finding the right balance between leveraging differences and similarities. Can we embrace diversity and empower affinity?
A study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) titled Leading a Multigenerational Workforce shows that while we come from diverse generations, we still share similarities in some organisational needs:
1. We all seek fulfilment and a sense of purpose from our job; accompanied by a side of worthy paycheck.
2. We want to have job satisfaction and this is often a result of a good workplace culture.
3. We like to be recognised and appreciated in our role.
4. Career development is a high priority for most of us.
5. Flexibility and autonomy of time are important regardless of generations.
The same study also provides questions and a checklist that can guide talent leaders in assessing the management of generational diversity in their respective organisations. This can be useful input for any organisation to begin in leveraging the strengths of their diversity and affinity.
However, if today we were to start ensuring that our strategies in managing generational differences result in success, where would we start? A good starting point could lie in building an affinity through our organisation’s culture.
An organisation’s culture is a landscape that defines the strength of the produce it plants; this “produce” can comprise the vision, talent strategies, operational procedures etc. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, author of best-selling book Daring Greatly; “leaders place importance on strategy without acknowledging where there are standing to begin with.”
Imagine planting on infertile soil – it doesn’t matter how much you water, provide sunlight, or even increase the quantity of plants, it will be a matter of time before these plants die a natural death.
What are some ways then to ensure a strong culture that can embrace diversity?
Affinity in accountability
By living the same stance of being responsible for our own actions, we afford space for diversity management.
In a culture where everyone embraces the fact that they are responsible for the collective consequence at varying degrees, people are less likely to blame each other for bad consequences.
Often in multi-generational organisations, the blame attacks people as human – “These Baby Boomers are too old-fashioned” or “These Millenials just want things too quickly”.
We fail to realise that we as individuals have the responsibility to question how fast or slow we want to move as a team and encourage a democratic conclusion to that.
A common strategy to manage generational diversity is encouraging multigenerational projects. To empower affinity in diversity projects, talent leaders can build in “accountability sessions” which focus on clarifying roles, strengths and areas to improve throughout the project’s timeline.
The leader’s role is then to follow up on each of these sessions and align before moving along the timeline. This creates a platform for open feedback and accountability, whilst allowing the leader to consistently model accountability.
Affinity in Empathy
Diversity cannot exist in selfishness; it is just not the right soil. An affinity in being empathetic complements the accountability principle. In managing diversity, it is important to be clear of your own responsibility and perspectives, but to also understand why people have different perspectives.
Talent leaders can roll-out the best diversity practices, but without a culture of empathy, the knowledge remains as SOPs and managerial-imposed instructions.
A key way to empower this affinity is to build processes that support the growth of empathy. For example, Leaderonomics’ induction requires newbies to personally meet people from different teams in their first week.
These small and personalised sessions induces a culture of curiousity and asking questions to promote growth of empathy. The continuous process of curiousity, questioning and obtaining answers allow understanding of different viewpoints which ultimately fosters empathy.
Empathy also reduces blaming and help people to realise that differences may not be as pronounced as what they have in common. Consistent behaviours are building blocks of a pervasive culture.
Without a common landscape, differences in perceptions and other unique behaviours are challenged in growth and often are uprooted. In essence, it becomes difficult to understand differences much less to further the organisation through leveraging these differences.
No one can deny that the one-box-talent-management-model is no longer effective, but before we start a wild goose chase on trying to implement tailored strategies, it is probably wiser to find a common core to grow our differences.
Thus, regardless of how many generations come to the same workplace, with these values bounded as culture, we have a superordinate landscape that ties us together in affinity. This affinity then ensures engagement particularly in aspects where we are different from one another.
So for today, ask yourselves, where in your organisation exists diversity and is there an affinity beyond this variety that you can empower?
Evelyn Teh is part of Leaderonomics’ Talent Acceleration team. For more information, email email@example.com. Click here for more articles.