Tips for Leading Across the Generation Gap
As hard as it can be to believe that oneself is out of touch, it’s more than likely true. Each new generation is vastly different than the one that came before it, and those differences come with different cultures and mindsets.
The cultural disconnect can be wide in an office environment. In my industry, we like to think of Generation Z as the teenagers populating U.S. malls, high schools and movie theaters. But the truth is the oldest members of this generation are graduating college and are starting to enter the workforce. Many of them already have.
If you’re in a leadership position, you might run into a tough question: How can I effectively lead a generation I don’t understand? This question has been asked for decades. The answer, like the question itself, is complex. However, there are a few tips and concepts to keep in mind to be the best leader for all ages of employees in your workplace.
One of the biggest weapons you have in your arsenal is offering flexibility to employees. Younger generations, and Generation Z specifically, often do not have deep-lying roots committing them to staying in one place. The careers and workplaces they are looking into allow for some degree of freedom. This can be freedom of location, movement or schedule.
For some generations, this is a sticking point. We are accustomed to a completely different way of thinking. I grew up believing that being at the office at 7 A.M. to start the day meant being at the office at 6:50. To younger generations, 7 A.M. is more of a suggestion, as is the concept of the office. To them, if the work is completed when it needs to be completed, everything else is just details.
Giving your workforce the opportunity and option to, for example, work from home, is a great way to endear yourself to younger employees. They may not always take advantage of these perks, but the fact that they have the option is meaningful. It’s a gesture that says in part that you are understanding of their desires and shows you trust them.
Be a Teacher
The desire for flexibility might be a point of contention, but one thing you may have in common with the younger generations is the desire for growth. If there is a skill this generation wants to learn, they aren’t waiting to get into the classroom with a professor to learn it. They are heading to Google, YouTube, and the various blogs and self-directed websites they may have heard about through peers. This generation grew up with interconnected tools and resources and have years of experience navigating and using them to their advantage.
As a leader, this is the perfect place for you to step in. You may not completely replace the Internet as a source of knowledge for younger employees. But your willingness to impart your years of experience on them can make you their first point of contact when they have a question. Despite Generation Z’s penchant for technology, personal contact is still preferred.
Doing this has a secondary benefit. Being available to teach makes you more accessible as a leader. Take these opportunities to learn about your younger employees and their motivations. What drives them? What would make them more comfortable around you? Being available as a leader makes you a more empathetic leader over time, which only benefits the workforce at large.
Remove Yourself from the Equation
Taking a step back can be helpful in many aspects of leadership. Conflict resolution is one area that benefits from this approach. In every workplace there will be conflict, that is unavoidable. In moments when you feel like conflict is repeatedly being caused by a generational culture difference, it’s best to try temporarily removing yourself from the situation.
If possible, let someone closer in cultural understanding serve as an intermediary. Long term, this may prove to be a helpful strategy. Allow a fresh set of eyes to examine the situation and help see the problem from a different perspective. You may learn how to avoid certain culture conflicts in the future.
Removing yourself from the equation is also a way to temporarily remove your feelings and world view from interactions with younger employees. Offer yourself up to be taught by the younger members of the office. Sometimes as leaders we forget that we can learn from others. Opening yourself in this way is an easy way to build rapport with employees and grow as a leader.
Leadership is tricky, and sometimes it is hard to lead across a generation gap. Different cultures and mindsets can be difficult to navigate when it comes to leading youth. But always remain empathetic. Once upon a time, we were in their position — new to the workforce and challenging established ideas. Being adaptable and understanding in your leadership will not only benefit the employee-employer relationship but the business as a whole.