Six Strategies for Overcoming the Challenges of Managing a Multi-Generational Team
July 20, 2017
A life science manager today is at a critical point, operating at a nexus between four generations with significantly differing working styles, behaviours, and expectations. From the last ‘pre-Boomer’ lead scientists born during WWII to those incoming Gen Y’ born in the final decades of the 20th century, a manager of a modern workplace has four generational worldviews to contend with.
It is a delicate balance and one which will take all your management ‘nous’ to navigate successfully.
How can you juggle the challenges of managing a multigenerational team?
Knowing how to efficiently manage all generations is unlikely to happen by instinct, as you’re operating from your own set of generational preferences (and biases). Therefore you must learn about what makes each generation tick, as this is the only way you’ll be able to create a strong, productive unit which draws on the workplace strengths of each generation and minimises the perceived weaknesses.
The four generations and their (general) characteristics
Pre-Boomers (1939-47) Also called Traditionalists.
Loyal and hardworking, believe seniority should be respected, that rewards come in exchange for sacrifice, and juniors should ‘do their time’. Prefers classroom learning values security and tangible goals such as homeownership; prefers written communication (particularly for performance feedback), tech-challenged.
Baby Boomers share some of the traits with their predecessors, including a sense that the younger generations need to ‘serve their time’ before moving up the ranks. However, they are often more competitive than pre-Boomers, with a positive response to incentives, and are more willing to challenge authority. They are also more willing to work in groups and prefer face-to-face feedback and communicating by phone.
Gen X (1964-79)
Technology makes its presence known in this generational group, with an increasing level of savviness but not to the ‘tech native’ status of the following generation. Gen X like to communicate by email and text message. There’s also a growing desire for independence and better work-life balance, an emphasis on financial gain, and a desire to be viewed as leaders.
Gen Y (1980-2002) Also commonly referred to as Millennials
This generation believes that merit should be rewarded over seniority; prefers regular feedback with a lot of praise; likes learning via the internet, and responds favourably to a good work-life balance, work flexibility, and travel opportunities. Tech-native (has always been immersed in technology and finds it intuitive), enjoys innovation and seeks meaningful work.
There are strong advantages and potential drawbacks to each generation of employees. The perfect team has elements of all generations, from the steadfast loyalty of the pre-Boomer right through to the fresh ideas of the Millennials.
You’ll need to take the different behaviours, attitudes, and expectations into account when hiring, rewarding, training, and retaining employees.
Strategies for managing an intergenerational life science team
There are some great techniques for bringing your team together based on their differences, rather than allowing them to divide into generational blocks. However, be warned that just because someone is a certain generation, don’t assume they’ll respond to the neat generational categories: be sure to assess everyone individually and just use these tips to assist where it fits.
1. Acknowledge the ‘elephant in the room’.
Host a session talking about the different generations and how they may approach work differently. This will probably provoke a certain amount of response from the team, such as ‘that’s not true- I’m a Gen Y, but I don’t need constant feedback’. The more responses, the better: this is a fabulous opportunity for everyone to learn more about each other’s individual working styles, while also alerting them to how other generations tend to work best in general.
2. State your expectations about work behaviour and styles.
If you don’t want phones or social media used in working hours, say so from the outset, don’t get annoyed when you notice the Gen Y employees attached to their phones as if they’ve been grafted on and fume ‘we would have never done that in my day.’ If you don’t want Gen Y using abbreviations in emails that may confuse anyone over 35, or if you require your senior employees to start using collaborative software to communicate with team members rather than email or phone, you must set this out clearly.
3. Frame individual work in the context of team goals.
There will be less conflict in the team if everyone is extremely clear on what they are doing and how all the other team members’ work is also contributing to the goal.
4. Modify your own leadership style to suit the individual.
This should be your default management position, but it becomes even more salient when dealing with intergenerational teams. This means that you have to give feedback and incentivise differently depending on how the individual is motivated. For instance, Gen Y employees will often react very favourably to flexible work options, while more senior employees will often be motivated by financial incentives.
5. Highlight everyone’s strong points.
To promote harmony and appreciation across generational borders, make sure you publicly point out others’ strengths- i.e., ‘Jane is a pharma regulations expert with three decades of experience’, or John comes to us from a post-grad program working with the latest nanotechnology’. This kind of introduction (or reminder) serves to create a respectful buffer against the behaviours that the other generations may find frustrating –such as John’s belief he should be rapidly promoted over more senior figures or Jane’s insistence on printing information out rather than reading on-screen.
6. Build bridges.
Your job as a leader is to ensure not only that the generations work well together, but also that the vital skills and experience of the older generations are passed onto the newcomers, and vice versa. Mentoring opportunities between the generations are a superb way to share knowledge and build respect, so set up training sessions and identify where strengths and weaknesses are that could be helped by another member of the team.
In around two years, another generation will join the fray, with the first Gen Z’s coming through the final years of high school, with their own set of work styles and behaviours. While life science fields probably won’t see most of those Gen Z graduates until after university, it’s extremely important to hone your skills as a manager of intergenerational teams now in order to prepare for the next wave of employees.