10 Strategies to Solve Generational Differences in the Workplace

Today’s Generational Dynamics2 generations_AdobeStock_73914643.jpeg

As quoted by New York Times writer Adam Bryant in “Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss,” “People typically leave a company for one of three reasons…they don’t really like or respect their co-workers…or have a terrible boss – and this was the biggest variable.


Generational differences are a contributing factor to this problem. There are three generations that take up the bulk of the labor force at any point in time. Baby Boomers, GenXers, and Millennials, the current workforce generations, each have values and cultures unique to themselves that plays a dynamic in the workplace. However, there are several strategies for finding synergies in those differences in order to work more cohesively and reduce turnover as informed by the research of USC Professor Morley Winograd.


In order to foster a good working environment for a diversified generational workforce to work together you must first and foremost demand that everyone respect each other. From my experience, I have found this to be the foundation upon which to build all other strategies.


Secondly, leaders must encourage their team to disprove any assumptions based on generational stereotypes by getting to know their colleagues and focusing on what they have in common. This is most impactful when done outside of the normal work environment. Facilitating this effort to understand each other will reduce conflict. This is especially critical in employee-manager relationships where there is often a generational gap because according to Harvard professor Sterling Livingston in his book “Pygmalion in Management,” “what managers expect of subordinates and the way they treat them largely determine their performance and career progress.” If potential is limited then the relationship will disintegrate.


Winograd suggests the best way to get all three generations to work together is through projects. Tasks can be assigned out in a way that leverages each generation’s strengths, considers their values, and doesn’t mandate how they complete them. GenXers prefer to be autonomous so assigning them tasks they can do individually is best, while tasks that involve more collaboration is best for Millennials. Boomers like to mentor so assign them as project mentors, while Millennials are highly-tech savvy so let them lead and teach technology to the other generations. Older employees prefer interesting work and work-life balance, while Millennials are more motivated by new experiences, therefore assigning tasks accordingly to align with their wants will make team members much happier.


When it comes to assessing risk, it’s important to include a voice from every generation to keep the assessment evenly balanced and objective. For example, GenXers are idealistic and high-risk takers, so they should be balanced with the inputs of realistic Millennials and conservative Baby Boomers. When it comes to making decisions, there will no doubt be conflict. Therefore, agreed upon decision-making protocols should be established upfront to reduce it.


When a Millennial offers a contribution, or makes a decision could have been better, instead of telling them they are wrong and ignorant because they are young and lack experience, instead invite them to collaboratively discuss the topic as if they were back in school suggests business journalist Rebecca Knight in her HBR article “Managing People from 5 different Generations.” This type of forum is familiar and safe for them, so they will be more likely to change their minds rather than just using the “I’m older and have more experience, so I know better” card, which would cause them to resist.


Malcolm Gladwell, a long time New Yorker staff writer and established author on the social sciences, recommends that “managers can use the technique of “priming,” in his book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” particularly right before team collaborations. For example, managers can share a positive story of how they got along really well with a person from a generation different than their own, which influences employees to make similar positive associations with other generations.


By emphasizing having a “learning mindset” alongside experience will help reduce what professor Livingston calls the “serious ‘generational gap’ between bosses and subordinates” where “managers resent the abstract, academic language…used by recent graduates” causing them to “feel threatened.” Since everyone can learn from each other, cross-mentoring is a great way to take the focus off of egos.


Cross-mentoring and collaborative efforts should be consistently and immediately positively reinforced, through either rewards or recognition as suggested by the “father of performance management” and famed psychologist Aubrey Daniels in “Behavior Is a Function of Its Consequences. From Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement.” It should be noted that of these two reinforcement methods, recognition is much more powerful than rewards for signaling that something is important according to the research of top business school professors Michael Tushman and Charles O’Reilly in “Winning through innovation: A practical guide to leading organizational change and renewal.” At the Sloan business school at MIT some students discovered in a study that “instead of highlighting how existing practices are harming…managers should focus on what many employees have already been doing” right because it can increase positive behavior by as much as 34%” which they shared in the article “Apply (and Resisting) Peer Influence.” Alternatively, you must also be careful not to reward someone who performed well, but did not make an effort to work with other generations that way they know it doesn’t pay off to be out for yourself, which is what Standford business professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton warn about in “Do Financial Incentives Drive Company Performance? An Evidence-Based Approach to Motivation and Rewards.” Competition is more likely to occur when the generations are closer in age and the roles are similar: for example, when a Millennial and GenXer are both in senior management roles of the same function, so careful attention must be paid to these types of relationships.


When it comes to performance incentives, it’s important to provide a wide range of options that way each generation can choose what’s important to them. For example, by allowing flexible with work hours, Boomers can choose to work late as they tend to do, while Millennials can choose to break up their work day for more balance. Another example is baby boomers would prefer to be at the top rung of the hierarchy with perhaps a higher salary than a millennial, say, who would prefer to have a greater social impact and communal environment that fostered feedback and acknowledgement and more vacation time.


The closer you are able to meet the personal needs of each individual, the more likely they are to identify with the team, despite generational diversity according to HBR article “Managing Your Team.”



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Bryant, Adam.Google Quest to Build a Better Boss.” N.Y. Times. 2011.
Daniels, Aubrey. “Behavior Is a Function of Its Consequences. From Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement.”
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.” 2005.
Hewlett, Sylvia Ann et al. “How Gen Y and Boomers Will Reshape Your Agenda.” HBR. 2009. https://hbr.org/2009/07/how-gen-y-boomers-will-reshape-your-agenda
Knight, Rebecca. “Managing People from 5 different Generations.” HBR. September 25, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/09/managing-people-from-5-generations
Livingston, J Sterling. “Pygmalion in Management.” HBR. 2002.
Tushman, Michael and O’Reilly, Charles. “Winning through innovation: A practical guide to leading organizational change and renewal.” 2002.
Pfeffer, Jeffrey and Sutton, Robert. “Do Financial Incentives Drive Company Performance? An Evidence-Based Approach to Motivation and Rewards.” HBSP. 2006.
President and fellows of Harvard College. “Managing Your Team” (HBS note 494-081). HBR. March 28, 1995.
Winograd, Morley and Hais, Michael D. “Generational Economics.” HuffPost. The Blog. 09/14/2010. Updated May 25, 2011. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-hais-and-morley-winograd/generational-economics_b_715148.html
Winograd, Morley and Hais, Michael D. “The Boomers Had Their Day. Make Way for the Millennials.” Washington Post. February 3, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/01/AR2008020102826.html
Winograd, Morley. “The Major Differences Between Gen X, Millennials, and Plurals.” imedia. February 13, 2015. http://www.imediaconnection.com/article/154123/the-major-differences-between-gen-x-millennials-and-plurals


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