Creating unity at work: what every generation needs to learn

Employee Engagement

Companies are in the middle of a generational intersection that will have significant negative consequences and may make waves for decades to come. Right now, the sad truth is that different generations are likely disconnected from each other at work. Just recently, new research cited in a People Management article showed that we may be in the midst of an internal battle, with each generation at odds over tech usage and communication styles. Despite widespread investment in corporate culture programmes, companies devalue both the work they do and investment they make when they don’t put generational unity at the core. It is now paramount that businesses underpin all activity with social cohesion. 

It’s in the workplace that each generation is likely to be living their own stories and seeing others’ values and traditions. It’s become an intersection of lived moments that either create a dynamic tension leading to better outcomes, ideas and results – or a destructive tension, leading to fallouts, conflict and ultimately grievances. Generations ‘missing’ each other simply don’t have the tools or knowledge to find a way through their competing stories and values. 

We have four generations in the workplace: baby boomers, who are facing retirement age and often hold significant influence; Generation X, characterised as independent and flexible; millennials or Gen Y, the first generation to come of age in the digital era; and Generation Z, the first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age. Each has variations in their differences, naturally.

Here is a recent example from one of our clients, which is typical across most large organisations. Michael, a boomer, is an employee of 30 years at the business who has traditional views of career progression – achieved through hard work, stability and loyalty. He prefers face-to-face communication. Charlotte, a Gen Z employee, is a newer recruit. She’s tech savvy and ambitious, valuing flexibility, work-life balance, frequent feedback and recognition. She’s comfortable with remote work and digital communication.

It’s easy to see the disconnect. Michael manages Charlotte, expecting her to follow the same career trajectory, but her desire for rapid advancement and flexibility are seen as impatience and entitlement, while her preference for digital communication feels impersonal. Charlotte, on the other hand, feels frustrated by her manager’s reluctance to embrace change and believes her skills and contributions should be recognised and rewarded promptly. She finds Michael’s management style rigid, hindering her ability to thrive in her role.

Left to their own devices, Michael tries performance managing Charlotte, while Charlotte makes a formal complaint about his management style and the impact on her wellbeing. No one wins, there’s a considerable loss of productivity, time and money, and both good employees are considering leaving the organisation. It’s a common scenario yet learning about intergenerational needs creates unity and avoids conflict resolution.

The starting point is respect. We all need to acknowledge and respect each other’s perspectives and work styles. In this instance, Michael will benefit from understanding the value of flexibility, digital communication and recognising younger employees’ achievements. Charlotte can learn from Michael’s experience and wisdom, not least the benefits of patience, perseverance and face-to-face interactions. 

It’s easy to talk about respect but turning it into everyday action is harder. HR and L&D teams can support the process by implementing mandatory sessions on generational diversity and effective communication strategies to help bridge the many gaps. These sessions need open dialogue, a respect of people’s differences and a willingness to learn from one another. Using real and relatable scenarios brings the issues to life, showing how everyone has a part to play and how they can make a difference, not only to support the organisation, but to smooth their own working journeys.

Sessions need to model an environment that allows for different perspectives to be valued, where everyone will be heard and appreciated, regardless of cultural norms, communication practices and leadership behaviours. This is important – it shows that, if they can do this in a three-hour session, they can do it in their own teams and across the organisation. 

The following steps help coach them on carrying it forward, long after a learning session has ended: 

  1. Establish ground rules: setting clear ground rules ensures that everyone has an opportunity to speak and be heard. This includes guidelines for respectful communication, such as avoiding interrupting others or dismissing differing opinions.
  2. Open communication: encourage open dialogue where employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, ideas and concerns without fear of judgement or reprisal. 
  3. Active listening: training managers and employees in active listening techniques ensures that everyone feels heard and understood. This includes giving full attention to the speaker, asking clarifying questions and paraphrasing to confirm understanding.
  4. Acknowledge and respect differences: it’s important to highlight rather than brush over diverse perspectives, experiences and backgrounds. Ask employees to play back unique contributions they’ve heard individuals bring to the table to help better recognise and appreciate them.
  5. Empathy and understanding: ask everyone to contribute to sharing another person’s viewpoint and experiences, asking them how they think the other person might feel from this new vantage point. 

Intergenerational mentorship is another excellent route ahead, where younger employees are paired with older, more experienced colleagues for mentorship and reverse mentorship. This facilitates knowledge sharing, skills development and relationship-building across generations.

And to embed it all? Make sure you are building cross-generational collaboration on your project teams as this will lead to innovation, creativity and a sense of team among all.

Matt Stephens is co-CEO and founder of Inpulse

Master Engagement Throughout the Employee Lifecycle