How To Manage

The response to last month’s article “Overcoming the Generational Divide in the Workplace — Recruitment” was VERY positive, so I am glad that two additional articles about this fascinating and important topic were planned.  This is the first time in American history that four different generations are working side by side in the workplace and to understand the differences is key to successful management.

This month generational expert Chuck Underwood helps us to understand what employers need to know to effectively work with the Silent, Boomer, Gen-X, and Millennial generations. Founder and principal of the generational consulting and training firm, The Generational Imperative, Inc., Chuck is the creator, host and co-executive producer of the PBS series “America’s Generations with Chuck Underwood,” and author of “The Generational Imperative:  Understanding Generational Differences In The Workplace, Marketplace, And Living Room.”

TTC.  In order to manage successfully, it’s important to understand some of the key generational differences.  Perhaps you could use an example to take us through a management issue and how an employer might handle it for the different generations.

CU.  Each generation brings to work each day different workplace values, attitudes, strong points, weaknesses, and preferences.  The manager who is fully and formally trained in Generational Workforce Strategy develops the necessary gearbox to shift smoothly from dealing with employees from one generation to another.  One issue is teamwork:  Boomers and Millennials (Mils) tend to love group dynamics; Gen-X, conversely, is a self-reliant and independent generation that often prefers to work alone.  During busy periods for an organization, Boomers tend to be more comfortable with working beyond regular hours than X’ers and Mils, who are more interested in work/life balance.

TTC. When talking with a generationally mixed group of employees, what kinds of steps can be taken to ensure that everyone understands what is being said?  Perceptions differ and each generation could be absorbing the information differently.

CU.  True.  And in such instances, which can be very complex, the best strategy is to start at the beginning, explain the ABC’s, and OVER-explain.  Also, double-check throughout the conversation, to make certain everyone understands your message clearly, by asking them to repeat it, by encouraging questions, and by reinforcing the outcome that you, as manager, seek from the conversation.  Simple-Speak is Good-Speak

TTC. What can a manager do to encourage the different generations to learn from each other—cross mentoring, if you will. And what can each provide to the other?

CU.  I’m currently working with a corporation to create an internal culture of Generational Diversity, the outcome of which, among other things, is a free flow of knowledge, learning, and mentoring in both directions:  from the bottom up, and from the top down.  It all begins with developing a respect for the unique knowledge and skills of each generation and wanting to learn from them and teach them in a comfortable and harmonious manner.  It begins with a training workshop in Generational Workforce Diversity And Management Strategy.

TTC. If a manager wanted to form a task force to tackle a particular problem or project, is there a generation that might be more suited to handle that?  What are some of the strengths of each and why would the formation of a task force work best for someone of a particular generation?

CU.  I received a phone call from a Boomer advertising agency executive, who had just joined the company and was given a team of seven Gen-X’ers to work on a new account.  In their first meeting as a team, the executive explained the new account – the ad campaign it was seeking, its target demographic, and its budget – and then turned to her X’er team and said, “Okay, what are we gonna do?” All seven X’ers left the room.  The executive called me to ask if “it was a generational thing.”  I explained that X’ers preferred to hear about the new account, return to their own work-stations, create their own individual ideas, and then reassemble with the entire team and report these thoughts.

A Boomer, the executive preferred keeping everyone around the table to bounce ideas off each other in a group session.  There’s no inherent right-or-wrong to these two ways; they’re just generationally different.  So, in a task-force dynamic, Boomers and Mils tend to enjoy group meetings to discuss the issues and develop responses.  X’ers don’t mind the idea of participating on a task force, but they might like the option of doing at least some work individually and in solitude.

TTC:  How is it possible to know when something is a “generational” trait and not really based upon temperament or personality? The desire to work in teams or alone might be an example of that.

CU.  “Generational considerations” should become a permanent filter in managers’ brains through which they run their planning and decision-making.  One direct path to getting an answer to this question is to ASK:  “Where does your thinking on this matter come from?”

TTC. Good management includes ongoing education and training programs for employees. How does an employer accommodate the different learning styles among the generations?

CU.  It’s not always easy.  Boomers and Mils want to be trained by human beings who are in the room with them.  X’ers like this, too, but also tend to be comfortable when the trainer is software.  But here’s what will work when training multiple generations:  hire a true topic expert to conduct the training; cut the crap and make the training as time-efficient, honest and visually interesting as possible. Make it interactive and participatory, and give ample time for Q and A and group discussion.  I managed a large research study of Mils and X’ers for a national trade association, and among the findings was this:  if a training session is to be an hour long, then put a true expert at the front of the room.  Give these two generations 45 minutes of magnificent lecture, 15 minutes of Q and A, and then let the audience schedule INDIVIDUAL and PRIVATE 5-minute conversations with the speaker immediately afterwards.

TTC. The generations have conflicting work ethics, dissimilar values and idiosyncratic styles.  How is it possible for a manager to deal with this?  Can you give us an example of a potential minefield in managing three or four different generations?

CU.  Lots of minefields exist, and you just identified several.  Managers should establish policies and principles and resolve conflicts that (1) their multigenerational workforce will embrace and (2) will avoid the mines in the future.  Asked by a client how to establish a tech-use policy for employees to control on-the-job technology abuse, I suggested two things.  The first was to INVOLVE THEM in creating the specifics of this policy so they’ll feel ownership of it.  Second, JUSTIFY and fully EXPLAIN the “why” behind each part of it when it’s completed.  If employees understand it and feel a sense of ownership of it, they will honor it.

TTC.  Can you give us an example of a directive and how it might be interpreted by the three different generations?

CU.  The advertising-sales department of a local television station in a major market needed its sales team to work long hours in late spring, because – each year – this is when they sell the autumn programs coming up on their own station and by way of the national network they’re affiliated with.  If they don’t sell the advertising during this critical two-week window, they lose their chance.  The directive was “to sell. ”The General Sales Manager found that Boomers were at their cubicles late at night cranking it out.  Gen- Xers left at 6:00 p.m., normal quitting time. When it comes to issuing directives, managers can avoid a lot of heartache if they (1) mention to job candidates, during the interview process, exactly what the employer expects of them, in every way. A sensitive issue these days with time-starved X’ers is overtime and after-hours work.  Managers should let job candidates know of possible seasonal swings in hours and time commitment.  It’s also best not to ambush them with last-minute, pop-up, after-hours meetings.

TTC. Have you found that companies and managers acknowledge that there are generational differences in values and expectations and the importance of really understanding this will enable them to communicate and manage more effectively?

CU.  Too many companies and managers ACKNOWLEDGE generational differences and maybe bring in someone like me for a half-day or full-day training program with their supervisory personnel, but then fail to commit the resources necessary to create a comprehensive and ongoing CULTURE of generational understanding.  And as employees – including managers – come and go, the training and understanding become diluted. It takes an ongoing commitment for it to be successful.

TTC. Clearly is it important for managers to be trained in understanding generational differences.  Do you think that this is important for employees as well?

CU.  Employees need to understand the differences and similarities amongst the generations and  how all employees can better relate to each other, respect the differences, help each other to be fulfilled and productive, and maintain a strong sense of harmony and teamwork.

The next Q&A with Chuck Underwood will address the topic of generational differences in Motivation and Retention

Chuck Underwood trains American business, government, education, and religion in generational workforce and marketplace strategies.  If your organization is interested in a training seminar in Generational Workforce Strategy or Generational Marketplace Strategy, please contact Chuck at