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Do Generational Differences Matter?

Posted by David Sturt | Feb 6, 2017 6:00:00 AM

do generational differences matter

Carol just can’t catch a break. She hustles to get her work done, turns in assignments on time, and does her best to connect with colleagues on the team. But for some reason her teammates and manager don’t believe she’s giving her full effort—and don’t seem to enjoy working with her. They view her late arrival in the office as disrespectful. They don’t appreciate how she likes to chat with colleagues over the cubicle walls. And they just don’t understand why she’s always using e-mail instead of delivering messages in person.

This is a classic case of a misunderstood Millennial in the workplace. But what really makes this situation interesting is Carol’s perspective toward her coworkers. She’s confused by the strong focus on “working hours” and “start times.” Isn’t the work she produces while she’s at the corner coffee shop just as valuable as the work she performs while sitting in the office? She also doesn’t understand why her colleagues frown upon chitchat. Isn’t working together supposed to build camaraderie? And isn’t sharing ideas the point of going to an office?

Thanks to individual norms and habits, everyone approaches his or her work life differently—which can create plenty of miscommunication. In the last few years, HR and leadership experts have made a big deal about generational differences and the chaos they can wreak in the workplace. But the truth is that many important similarities hold true in the workplace in spite of any generational differences. Whether people find themselves in Carol’s shoes or sympathize with her disgruntled colleagues, they may be surprised to find that even when they talk about generational differences among their coworkers, they still end up pointing out similarities, too.

So which generational differences actually matter? And which ones don’t?

Generational Differences That Matter

Management Preferences

Employees of different generations have diverse management preferences not only because they view the world differently, but also because they are at very different career stages. For example, nearly eight out of ten Millennials report that they’d like their manager “to serve more as a coach or mentor.” That preference makes sense, because it helps Millennials reach their goals of gaining skills, making connections, and advancing their careers. The generational differences don’t represent mutually exclusive desires, but these preferences reveal how important it is for a manager with a diverse team to understand the mindset of each employee—and to manage, encourage, and motivate him or her accordingly.

Team Culture

Which group tends to be more collaborative—younger employees or older employees? In an IBM survey of multigenerational employees, the answers to that question were all over the place. More Millennials (55% of respondents) than Baby Boomers (39%) believe that team consensus is important in making decisions—but of the three groups, Generation X employees are the most likely (61%) to hold that belief. At the same time, Baby Boomers are the least likely (41%) of the generations to believe that the boss knows best when it comes to making business decisions, with Millennials (53%) and the members of Generation X (47%) having much less confidence in their leaders. So which is better: more collaboration and group input—or less? The ideal arrangement for any team depends on the particular makeup of that group, of course. (That said, managers can never go wrong with assigning a combination of individual projects and group projects that keep everyone busy.)


How do employees of different generations decide to join a new organization? What motivates them to get on board with a new team or company? The answers to these questions vary widely. For example, older employees frequently choose new employers that offer them more money and innovative work environments. Millennials, on the other hand, seek positions with companies whose values are compatible with their own—an alignment that helps Millennial employees feel motivated and loyal to their companies. And millennials also say that an employer’s state-of-the-art technology is a key factor for their choosing a company to join. Put your company’s best foot forward to appeal to employees of all generations—and remember to show your commitment to empowering great work, too.


Similarities among the Generations

Flexible Schedules

Everyone knows that younger workers crave flexible schedules—and that the younger they are, the more they want to work from home in their pajamas, set their own hours, and even take whole days off (as long as the work gets done). Right? Not quite. It’s true that 74% of Millennials want flexible work schedules. But—and here’s the surprising bit—a whopping 94% of Baby Boomers also want “some type of special work arrangement [such as] flexible hours or telecommuting.” It turns out that people of all ages seek work arrangements that align well with their other life priorities. The demand for flexible schedules is here to stay, with a focus that’s shifting from work-life balance to work-life integration (and the expectation of staying in constant contact with coworkers and bosses).

Making An Impact

Headlines claim that Millennials aren’t interested in staying with one company for long, that they’re more interested in advancing their own careers than in making a difference for their organizations, and that even when they want to make an impact their motivations for doing so are selfish. But recent research overturns those assumptions, finding that Millennial employees have longer tenures than most people think and that they’re willing to stay and do great work at organizations that express appreciation for their impact. (In fact, the IBM study found that “making an impact” is a top career goal of Millennials, Generation X workers, and Baby Boomers alike! ) Companies need to stop assuming that younger employees don’t care about making their mark—and start actively empowering them to succeed.


Even though motivation is an area in which generational differences can matter, it’s also an area in which employees can find common ground. What motivates and inspires employees to stay at a company for the long term and to do innovative, groundbreaking work there? One factor has this appeal across generational lines: appreciation for a job well done. Studies show that companies with strong recognition programs boast longer employee tenure. Employees of every age report that the best way to motivate them to deliver great work is to recognize them sincerely. And appreciation doesn’t have to involve a bonus, a suite of perks, or a corner office; sometimes just a simple, genuine “Thank you” is the best motivator of all.

For Carol and her colleagues, bridging their generational differences may not be as easy as bonding over shared values—but that is a great start. In your own team, get the ball rolling by discussing what preferences and priorities everyone shares—and which traits vary widely with individuals. This important discussion can help the team build understanding and unity, and discover how to collaborate and cooperate on the path to great work.

Related Article: Millennials: Digital natives in the modern workforce 

Copyright © 2016 Mamu Media, LLC All Rights Reserved.

David Sturt is the executive vice president of marketing and development at the O.C. Tanner Institute and the author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love. Todd Nordstrom is the director of institute content at the O.C. Tanner Institute. Throughout his career he has been a driving force and voice of business publishing and management sciences, reaching millions of readers in print and online.

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Topics: Human Resources Insights, Blogs, Company Culture, Generations

Written by David Sturt

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