The workforce is more diverse than ever, which creates a big opportunity for innovation, as well as big challenges. Work styles and preferences have changed, and organizations that don’t keep up with changes will lose opportunities to harness the power of these diverse perspectives and to find common ground. Many of these differences are highlighted by age, life experience and gender, and as the workforce continues to change quickly, those differences will become more apparent: By 2025, almost half of the workforce is expected to be women, and 3 out of every 4 global workers will be millennials. Generation Z will also be entering the workforce, adding even more new perspectives and experiences.
Understanding these different perspectives can help you build stronger teams, engage your employees and prepare for the future. Not only that, deeper understanding will help you better connect with current and future customers. Here’s how to get it right.
Generalize, but Don’t Stereotype
There is plenty of information out there about the different traits and characteristics associated with different generations. For example, there’s a general sense that baby boomers tend to respect hierarchy in the workforce, that members of Generation X are skeptical of authority, and that millennials feel respect should be earned. Organizations, leaders and managers should keep these tendencies in mind when thinking about work styles and culture, rewards and recognition.
However, it’s important to remember that these traits are generalizations, and to avoid stereotyping people based on these assumptions. You don’t want to lock people into categories and place limits on people. Think of these traits as motivations and filters — why someone in a generation might want or do something — rather than taking a position of “she’s a Gen Xer, she’s probably skeptical of me as a leader.”
Identify Common Themes
Too often, organizations focus on general differences when it can be much more effective to focus more on the commonalities. Chances are your employees want a lot of the same things, no matter their demographic. Flexible scheduling, development and training programs, leadership opportunities and strong wellness programs are benefits a wide variety of employees will appreciate, even if the demands in their lives that drive their interest vary. Review your policies and practices to ensure they’re available to everyone and aren’t framed around difference. Maternity leave is an excellent example: Adding parental leave, available to fathers and adoptive parents as well, or family leave, which can help support elder-care needs, is a great way to provide a benefit that’s available to all but may be used in different ways or because of different motivations by generation or gender.
Embrace a Flatter Structure
Organizational structures that depend heavily on formal, rigid hierarchy can create unnecessary and often times unintentional barriers along demographic lines. Consider creating a flatter organizational structure that makes it easier for employees to share and explore new ideas. Not only does this environment create opportunities for new insight and ideas, it also encourages employees to feel empowered to make decisions. When employees buy into their work, they tend to be willing to work very hard at even the most challenging tasks.
Work to Build Common Ground
Differences in the workplace can create barriers; older employees may find it rude or distracting if millennials frequently check their phones, for example. Instead of seeing that as an inevitable source of friction and conflict, though, look for ways to play to the strengths of different generations. This gives everyone an opportunity to leverage and use their strengths to build your organization and help serve your customers more effectively. In this case, find ways to capitalize on those younger employees who are heavy smartphone users. Encourage them to share positive stories and company culture via social media or ask for their opinion or expertise on new technology.
Drawing from a diverse population ensures a richer perspective internally and externally: “When internal diversity and inclusion scores are strong, and employees feel valued, they will serve our customers better, and we’ll be better off as an organization,” said Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review.
Building this common ground takes a different approach. Instead of assuming everyone has the same new hire and growth experience, managers must recognize that the perspectives they bring and the biases they have faced will dictate how they view and work at your company. See new hires as a company resource who can bring innovation, and give them opportunities to challenge the status quo without retribution. When planning development programs, keep the generalized motivations of different generations in mind, and use those perspectives to engage your diverse workforce and prepare them for leadership.
Through it all, company leaders and managers must listen, keep an open mind, and focus on building a culture of respect, curiosity and communication. Team cohesion, productivity and satisfaction depend on engaging and developing the strengths of all parts of your workforce. Showing that you understand demographic differences will encourage employees to share their unique perspectives and ideas and make your organization stronger.
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Success Labs is a leadership development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.