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Business leadership expert reveals how to navigate an office that’s more diverse than ever before.

When considering the modern workforce, conversations are often focused on increasing racial or gender diversity. And while such shifts certainly have an impact on workplace culture, there is another rapidly changing demographic that is significantly shaping professional dynamics: employee age. As more young adults from Gen Z enter the workforce each year and Baby Boomers make up a significant portion of corporate leadership, it is entirely possible to have an employee age range that spans five or more decades.

With a workforce composed of constantly shifting percentages of Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers, organizations face the challenge of aligning vastly different groups to collaborate toward shared business goals. Each generation brings its own expectations and beliefs about work, making it a difficult yet crucial task for business leaders to find a way to blend these ideas in the manner that best serves both the people and the organization. In fact, one 2021 study reports that 65 percent of office workers think they could do their job a lot more effectively if they just had a better boss. This underscores the importance of strong leadership in effective workplaces. A strong team needs a strong manager who is able to navigate differences and identify strengths deftly.

Believe it or not, age may play a smaller role in the way we think about work than we may have thought. A new study reports that attitudes towards work and career are not significantly different across generations. The research showed that the perceived differences in work attitudes among generations, from baby boomers to Gen Z, are less pronounced than commonly thought. Using data from nearly 600,000 individuals, researchers report that stage of life is far more significant than birth year. “Of course, as with all clichés, there’s a grain of truth in them, but when you take a closer look, the differences between the generations are not really that great at all,” explains study author Martin Schröder. “What turns out to be important is which stage of life people are in when they are asked about their work ethic or their attitude to work.”

Whether stage of life, birth year, or generational influence plays the most significant role, the dynamic shifts every year. Before we can adequately address generational differences in the workplace, we must first understand them. Business leadership expert Dr. Scott DeLong has decades of experience managing teams of all kinds and brings valuable insights on approaching generational differences for success. Bringing together years of career lessons, DeLong’s latest book, “I Thought I Was A Leader…A Journey To Building Trust, Leading Teams & Inspiring Change” was released in 2023. DeLong shared with StudyFinds key insights to help navigate the great generational divide in the modern workforce.

Understanding Generational Differences

With four very different generations currently occupying space in today’s workforce, it’s essential to understand the general worldview and characteristics of each. While every person is an individual and stereotypes are certainly not universally applicable, a broad view of each can be a helpful tool for understanding.

Baby Boomers

  • Boomers are known for their strong work ethic, and are more than willing to put in long hours and bring work home.
  • Highly comfortable with a hierarchical mindset, Boomers strongly value a traditional organizational structure and authority.
  • Boomers typically followed a traditional career path, starting as individual contributors and advancing to roles like supervisor, manager, director, and vice president.
  • With a solid commitment to stability and longevity, many Boomers remained at one company for much (if not all) of their career.

Generation X (Gen X)

  • Gen X is the latest generation to infiltrate the C-suite in large numbers, bringing their unique perspective to their new role as primary decision-makers.
  • With a strong entrepreneurial side and a desire to innovate, many prefer doing things their way. They also coined the term “work-life balance,” an apt representation of their independent streak.
  • While more tech-savvy than their predecessors, Gen Xers also had to adapt to emerging technologies, many learning them through unconventional ways like video games.
  • Skeptical towards authority, Gen X is willing to challenge traditional norms, push back on established hierarchies, and make room for change.

Millennials

  • Millennials prioritize meaningful work and are driven by a sense of purpose in their careers.
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are core values for millennials, a reflection of their strong commitment to social justice and equality.
  • Millennials are tech-dependent yet excel in collaborative environments, often preferring to work in groups and utilize collective problem-solving.
  • Millennials value continuous feedback but have a strong desire for it to be positive and constructive, shaped by their upbringing in the age of “participation trophies.”

Generation Z (Gen Z)

  • Gen Z grew up with technology, making them the first-ever generation of digital natives.
  • Highly innovative and entrepreneurial, Gen Z has a strong interest in side hustles that align with their desire for independence and creativity.
  • Gen Z seeks out meaningful and diverse work environments reflective of their emphasis on social justice issues and human-centric solid values.
  • Flexibility is a top priority for Gen Z, with remote work options being a key issue when considering employment. This is representative of a strong need for autonomy and work-life balance.

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    (Photo by Headway on Unsplash)

(Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash)

Bridging Generational Divides

The most productive workplace is one that does not ignore generational differences but embraces them. A diversity of strengths is an asset in achieving business success, and open communication and empathy go a long way to combatting weaknesses.

While typical generational descriptors may resonate for many people, it’s also important to remember to treat everyone as the individual that they are. Preconceived notions of someone based on their birth year can do far more harm than good, and leading with openness is imperative to workplace harmony. “Today’s workplace is completely different from the one I grew up in. The generational differences are real,” acknowledges DeLong. “However, we don’t want just to pigeonhole people because these are all individuals as well.”

Ultimately, it comes down to respectful, welcoming communication. “The workplace can be a community. It’s not your family. I get that. But it is part of your community,” says DeLong. “That’s the one thing: treat people with dignity and respect, find out what they need, and help them on their path. The company will do better when I do that. It’s this welcoming, inclusive way of treating [people] as human beings. If the rest of us did that, we would be bridging these generational divides quickly.”

Leadership In Multigenerational Workplaces

In DeLong’s eyes, there are three key traits that every great leader must demonstrate — humility, empathy, and vulnerability. By prioritizing treating everyone as an individual with valuable experiences, ideas, and perspectives, the entire team can achieve more tremendous success.

In understanding the value each team member provides, a good leader recognizes the value of everyone on the team. “My definition of humility is being humble enough to recognize that there’s value in everybody and I can learn from anybody,” says DeLong. “Everybody has value. That’s the humility I’m talking about.” A manager’s job is not to enforce their own style of work and communication on their team. Instead, the manager exists to achieve success by facilitating productive collaboration, open and honest communication, and tailoring processes to the team’s needs.

A good leader will also be willing to recognize his employees as individuals, placing value on their perspective and experience. “I’ll never get there,” acknowledges DeLong. “But doing the best I can to understand where you’re coming from your point of view is how I’ve defined empathy.” Leading with empathy allows for better relationships with employees, heightened trust among the team, and a workplace culture of dignity and respect.

Vulnerability isn’t the first word that comes to mind when we think of a leader — but maybe it should be. DeLong identifies vulnerability as “the most attractive quality I can have.” Leaders set the tone for how their teams act and behave. Leaders cannot expect connection, collaboration, and authenticity from their subordinates if they do not model it themselves. DeLong defines vulnerability simply as “letting you know that I might need some help.” When leaders are vulnerable in this way, it shows their workers that collaboration and teamwork, rather than solitude and burnout, are the core values of this team.

For a closer look at effective leadership and navigating an inter-generational workforce, look no further than DeLong’s latest book, I Thought I Was A Leader…A Journey To Building Trust, Leading Teams & Inspiring Change.” Here, DeLong explores the most important lessons about leadership he has learned after decades of studying the subject. He describes his experience in the professional sphere, generational divides in the workforce, and the true purpose of leadership.

book cover with navy and orange circle and white background
“I Thought I Was A Leader…A Journey to Building Trust, Leading Teams & Inspiring Change” by Scott DeLong, Ph.D.

What traits do you think define a good leader? How have you found the workforce to shift as younger generations start their professional careers? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!   

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About Anna Landry

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1 Comment

  1. PJ London says:

    Thank God for robotics. How the hell do you expect to make cars or electronics or food with “work from home, and work-life balance’ as the motif?
    I don’t care about your PhD in “Gender repositioning” Just put the carrots in the plastic bag and seal the damn thing.