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This Is How You Lead a Team That Spans 4 Generations

As the saying goes, age is only a number. Follow these strategies to make sure your multigenerational teams add up to success.

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BY Rhett Power - 24 Jan 2019

how to lead a team that spans

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Leading any team of individuals is challenging, but leading a workforce composed of almost every living generation takes those challenges to a completely new level. In everything from communication to cultural expectations, Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, Millennials, and Gen Z-ers can seem like entirely different people. Meanwhile, more Baby Boomers are working past their expected retirement, joining their younger counterparts in a more-diverse-than-ever workforce.

Every individual has his or her own unique values, motivations, experiences, and work styles, and the differences between them can be made wider by significant age gaps. Therefore, the ability to lead a multigenerational team to success is an essential skill. If not managed properly, multigenerational teams can crack under the weight of misunderstandings and misaligned expectations.

But managing multigenerational teams successfully means more than just understanding the differences between older and younger workers. It also means creating a culture that embraces those differences while playing to your team's strengths. Give all of your employees the opportunity to do what they do best, but encourage them to respect and appreciate each other and push their fellow team members toward success.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand, start with these four strategies.

1. Change your leadership tactics, but maintain a consistent leadership style.

When managing multiple generations, the key is to recognize that no single management tactic will be a good fit for everyone on your team. An annual performance review won't cut it for Gen Z-ers who crave more frequent feedback, and weekly self-assessments may drive Gen X-ers--who just want to get on with things--right up the wall. Changing the techniques you've used to manage employees for years or decades isn't easy, but it may be one of the most important steps you take. Different personalities coupled with different generational expectations mean that no situation will ever be resolved with a one-size-fits-all approach.

While leadership tactics may vary, however, one leadership style may offer all the flexibility you need. Alison Gutterman, CEO of Jelmar, explains that "servant leadership is quickly becoming the new normal in management style. While many organizational charts view hierarchies from the top down, servant leadership--or putting the needs of others first--flips it on its head." You can adopt this leadership approach by focusing on being self-aware, always asking how your actions impact others, and working to improve your listening abilities. In addition, strive to coach your team members rather than seeking to control their actions.

2. Banish generational myths and stereotypes.

Age isn't the only diverse aspect of today's workforce, but it's one of the more interesting ones. Unlike other factors, we've all been younger, and at some point--we hope--we'll all be older. Yet Michael S. North, assistant professor of management and organizations at NYU's Stern School of Business, points out several persistent myths that generations often believe about others, especially at work. In a real-world, functional team setting, younger workers don't actually outperform older ones, and older workers aren't really slow to learn new methods and new technologies.

Those myths overshadow what experienced Baby Boomers can teach younger co-workers, and the innovation Gen Z-ers can inspire in older ones. But look at me--I just perpetuated the stereotype! Who's to say a tech-savvy Gen X-er can't teach a Gen Z-er to use a new app, or that an empathetic Millennial can't show a Baby Boomer how to give more useful feedback? To cast generational stereotypes aside, avoid labeling employees (even if it's only inside your own head). Instead, find commonalities between co-workers of different generations and focus on managing people based on their strengths, not their ages--and train your managers to do the same.

3. Be open to--but don't force--flexible scheduling and remote work.

According to Sara Sutton, CEO of FlexJobs, the rate of people quitting jobs over lack of flexibility has doubled in the last few years. However, this doesn't mean you should force employees who prefer traditional schedules to start working from home. Instead, communicate openly and honestly to find out what employees' preferences are, discuss what roles may benefit most from more scheduling flexibility, and implement the technology needed (messaging platforms, task-tracking apps, etc.) to make it possible.

You may find that this is another area in which it pays to discard the stereotypes. For many Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, a traditional 9-5 schedule just feels right, while others were telecommuting pioneers who find it perfectly natural to work from home. While most Millennials and Gen Z-ers welcome workplace flexibility, parents with young children may appreciate knowing that their workday truly ends at 5. So, establish policies that clearly outline your rules for flexible work hours without regard to generation. Making sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to schedule expectations is crucial to ensure both uninterrupted workflows and optimal collaboration.

4. Ferret out the biases in your recruitment processes.

Fostering an environment conducive to leading your multigenerational workforce is important, but if your team lacks that diversity to begin with, then building it up is just as essential. Surprisingly, the AARP recently reported that only 8 percent of CEOs include age in their efforts to promote diversity and inclusion at their companies.

This is often just an oversight, which you can avoid by carefully re-evaluating your recruitment processes. For example, use an A.I. program to screen for age-biased language in job postings, whether it's "digital native" or "ninja" on the one hand, or "established" and "at least six years of experience required" on the other. Train recruiters and hiring managers in identifying these biases to avoid making age a negative factor in face-to-face interactions with potential employees.

Good leaders become great leaders because they understand people, but when your team spans 50 or more years of generational experience, it takes a little more understanding than usual. You may need to adapt your management tactics and workplace culture in order for that diversity to become your team's greatest strength.

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