Hello, I’m a Generation X executive, and I supervise employees and volunteers from ages 70 to 17. That is one of the reasons I call myself your “Cultural Navigator.” It is not easy managing all these generations effectively. I think being Gen X helps me (independent, latch key kid that startled analog and digital communication). But all of us in leadership roles need to know how to manage cultural differences in the workplace. Age is one of the many identity factors that we need to pay attention to, especially if other identity factors are more homogenous.
So that we are communicating in the same language, let’s use the following definitions of generations:
- Gen Z, iGen, or Centennials: Born 1996 – TBD
- Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 – 1995
- Generation X: Born 1965 – 1976
- Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964
- Traditionalists or Silent Generation: Born 1945 and before
Currently, we are experiencing seismic shifts on organizational culture, mainly because we’re shifting from Baby Boomer leadership to Generation X leadership (me). While loyal to the institution, we are radical and independent enough to challenge the status quo. What are the major factors that shape the generations? They are parenting, technology, and economics.
Here is a word of warning to organizations. If you are gearing up for millennials, be careful. Millennials are in their mid to early the 30’s. Gen Zs are exiting college and will soon fill up the workforce in mass. They are the children of Generation Xrs, so they will be responsive to the natural leadership style of Generation X, which is quite different from the, now elder, millennials. Boomer and Gen X supervisors need to prepare for the tension between Zs and Millennials and ensure that they don’t skip over a generation of workplace communication styles.
Information flow. Millennials value collaboration and engagement in the decision-making process. I have not found that they want to make the decisions, but that do want to talk about it and process decisions even with the boss. As a Gen X leader, I have found the best tool in my leadership arsenal to be the telephone. A phone call cuts through all the nonsense and is less threatening than video chatting. The phone call works well with all generations, not as the lead-in, but as the finishing touch. I text my millennials and Gen Z staff when something is urgent even before I email them. My boomers and fellow Gen X will typically respond to email.
Accessibility and transparency
I am available to all of my staff to a limited degree that I manage intentionally. The old “open door” policy never worked. It was a farce and bad leadership. As a leader, you can’t leave yourself open to constant interruptions and unplanned interactions. You have to prioritize engagement with your employees. Younger generations need to humanize their leaders. You can’t demand respect. You have to earn it. Your title doesn’t give you the mechanical respect that boomers and older generation recognized. Relational authority is much more important in today’s workplace. There are institutions and organization where mechanical authority is still strong, but I would argue relational authority trumps it every time. Make time for informal conversations and interactions with your employees, especially Millennials and Gen-Zs. Include this strategically in your workday interactions. Because of the differing views of work-life balance, the generations will view after work socials differently.
For a generation that is known for holding down several different jobs and not beholding to one, I find that millennials value a degree of certainty in their work. This goes back to transparency and information flow. Millennials were formed in an era where they experienced:
- Computers and technology as digital natives, giving them unprecedented access to information at a very young age.
- Increased parental emphasis on child-rearing and helicopter parenting, whereas Gen-X was left home alone.
- Gun violence and domestic terrorism at the schoolyard.
- Increased awareness of racial and gender diversity.
- Rise of social media and the online community
- Continual war by the United States
The millennials and Gen Zs are more informed, less connected (physically), more sheltered (protected by family), and have less faith in the institution to guarantee their safety than any previous generation in modern history. They need reassurance that their work and positions have some stability, even if that don’t have allegiance to the institution. They don’t understand the need to give the reciprocal certainty to the organization that most Gen Xers or Boomers would give.
Mind the Gaps
As leaders and HR professional, we have to mind the gaps, the cultural gaps that occur between the workers on our team. The expansion in workplace diversity brings varying perspectives, ideas, and experiences. This workplace diversity can spark creativity, innovation, and growth for your organization. Knowing how to effectively manage the differences in working styles between Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z will have a major impact in employee engagement and productivity. Don’t ignore the little crack of generational divides. If you let those cracks grow into full-blown generational divides, employees of all ages, not to mention your business results, will suffer.
I recently spent an hour or so reassuring my millennial employees about upcoming organizational changes. While I informed their the direct supervisor (I very much respect lines of authority), I did think it was important that I champion the change process. Did I have to do that as the boss? No, but I want to be an effective leader. If I want my organization to thrive in its generational diversity, I need to be flexible and transparent when it comes to managing the various generations that I lead. But I find that most of my employees appreciate the techniques that make me effective in communicating with Gen Zs and Millenials. Navigating culture means being able to navigate differences effectively.
Glen is a qualified administrator (QA) of the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®). The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®) is the premier cross-cultural assessment of intercultural competence that is used by thousands of individuals and organizations to build intercultural competence to achieve international and domestic diversity and inclusion goals and outcomes. IDI research in organizations and educational institutions confirms two central findings when using the IDI:
- Interculturally competent behavior occurs at a level supported by the individual’s or group’s underlying orientation as assessed by the IDI.
- Training and leadership development efforts at building intercultural competence are more successful when they are based on the individual’s or group’s underlying developmental orientation as assessed by the IDI.
* Cross-cultural code-switching is the act of purposefully modifying one’s behavior in an interaction in a foreign setting in order to accommodate different cultural norms for appropriate behavior.