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How to Manage Multigenerational Teams (and Not Go Totally Insane)

Business.com / Last Modified: November 29, 2017
Photo credit: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Modern leaders are faced with the challenge of having up to five generations on their teams. How can they create a sense of unity and mutual respect among people who have vastly different values, motivations and outlooks on life?

So you have three generations on your team – millennials, Generation X and baby boomers. Can you make them play nice?

This question reminds me of a conversation I had some years ago back with the boss of a large, international corporation. He had this to say about millennials: "They're like aliens from outer space. I know they bring unique abilities to my world, but I just can't seem to understand them." He, of course, was right on the border between Gen X and boomer.

As a leader, you've probably felt this gap. Maybe you're feeling it right now. Depending on the size of your company, you may have as many as five generations working side by side.

This makes inspiring teamwork and collaboration challenging, to say the least. How then to navigate the waters? Consider the five tips below.

1. Study the research, then forget it. 

Not sure exactly how these generations differ? For a quick refresher course, check out this high-level overview of a recent Ernst & Young study.

Now, with the research and traits in mind, let it go. Remember that we're all people born on planet Earth with hopes, dreams, goals and aspirations.

While we have our humanity in common, we're unique. So, not every one of your employees is going to fit into the box of traits their generation is known for.

2. Don't avoid the conflict of interaction; encourage it.

Have a major project coming up? Structure your team diversely and with intention. Purposely include someone from each generation if possible. Decide in advance what you think each one brings to the work.

Then communicate. Let them know they play a specific role based on their skills and abilities. For example, rely on your boomer for deep industry knowledge. Rely on your millennial for a fresh technical solution. While this example may feel stereotypical, it illustrates the point. Give each team member a reason to collaborate, get to know each other and embrace each other's differences

3. Try reverse mentoring.

Take the advice above and make it a formal relationship. Make it part of your team's development plan to teach each other.

Once the boomer or Gen Xer realizes what they can learn from the millennial, and vice versa, something beautiful may just take place. Mutual respect might blossom. And then you have fertile ground for innovation and growth.

4. Plan for knowledge transfer.

Use any newfound knowledge sharing as an opportunity for knowledge transfer.

Most companies are behind in defining, much less capturing, what critical knowledge could be lost if that expert who's been threatening to retire (but can't quite afford to yet) finally walks out the door. Once you've determined what critical knowledge needs to be passed on, ask your millennials how they learn best. It will be your biggest clue as to how Gen Z will learn.

This trend is only going to continue. You may as well start solving for it now. For example, consider everything you can learn to do on YouTube. The potential is limitless.

So don't have your boomer write a training manual. Instead, have your millennial record them as they share their years of experience in action, performing even the most manual of feats if it's pertinent to the future.

5. Apply the same approach to recruiting, training and onboarding.

Lather, rinse, repeat for the primary touch points along your team's journey.

Whether your company is a startup or a multinational corporation, chances are that at least chunks of your recruiting, onboarding and training materials are outdated. While HR is usually responsible for these materials, be proactive about what could be created to educate and inform your own team of tomorrow for the good of the whole.

Again, think multimedia versus print. When it comes to any online touch points, strive for as much interactivity as possible.

Bonus tip: When all else fails, try humor.

If generational differences are causing stress for you and your team, it might not feel like a laughing matter. However, research has shown that laughter has the power to heal. So it could be soothing to laugh at your own circumstances.

For example, check out Tim and Kris O'Shea's "Generations at Work" video. They specialize in solving tough business challenges through humor.

I also recently came across a clever infographic on this topic. The funny side-by-side comparisons of boomers, Xers and millennials made me smile and reminded me, once again, that we're all just people.


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