Influencing and Coaching for a Multigenerational Workplace
By Dan Neundorf
Today’s diverse workplace presents not only ethnic diversity but a puzzling blend of age and experience that presents a strategic challenge. For the first time in world history, four generations are working elbow to elbow in the same business environment, on the same team. . Will the youngest team member be an upstart, lack a work ethic, be impatient with goals and objectives, unwilling to focus on the tasks necessary to meet those objectives? Will the oldest team member—does father really know best?—be too set in his (or her) ways to learn new techniques? Or to acknowledge and value the differences in experience, learning curves, behaviors, and expectations? Can you? Can your managers and team leaders? Remember: Each generation is unique. Simply tolerating the uniqueness will not build unified teams: You have to harness it. Team members must work together smoothly and collaboratively under your leadership. By implementing the constructive practices of coaching and mentoring, you can leverage influence to bridge the age gap, facilitate knowledge transfer across the age groups, and increase team productivity.
The real challenges of a blended workforce
Carrie Ballone, manager of a recruitment, retention, and advancement initiative at a professional services firm, creates a stark image:
“A lack of understanding regarding generational differences contributes to conflict within working relationships, lowers productivity, and increases turnover. Seasoned staff can become frustrated by a seemingly aloof younger generation. Younger staff can become disenfranchised with entrenched hierarchal structures. Moreover, those employees stuck in the middle can become frustrated with everyone.”
Different generations care about different approaches to the same problem, advises Cam Marston at Learning Communications. To complicate that, a 2007 report on job satisfaction from the New York-based Conference Board, a private research firm, indicates that more than half of the 1,500 respondents surveyed dislike their work situation, with the lowest levels of job satisfaction reported by those 25 years of age and younger. Older workers—those ages 55 and older—report being satisfied with their jobs. The Conference Board survey is backed up by a more recent 2011 online survey of respondents from a range of organizations, roles, and countries. Conducted by BlessingWhite, a leading global consulting firm, this survey reported that less than one-third of employees worldwide feel engaged in their workplace, and that disengagement correlates strongly with age, employment level, and time on the job. These differences are real, and key leaders and managers must do more than acknowledge that they exist. Differences should be respected, and they should be acknowledged as value added, as opportunities to increase productivity. “Regardless of different habits, opinions, and work styles,” says author Lisa Haneberg, “[you can] cultivate a coaching environment where the different generations can have provocative conversations and truly help one another.”
Coaching requires a mindset change. Are you frustrated trying to navigate the different motivations and expectations of your blended workforce? Are you able to acknowledge both the differences and the common attributes of your people? Use these generalities as a rough guide:
- The Traditionalists, sometimes referred to as the Matures or the Veterans, were born prior to 1945. Influenced by the military and the patriotism of several wars, this age group—about 35 million strong—respects authority, values discipline, and is loyal to the workplace. Expect them to follow the rules and to put work first. For Traditionalists, “feedback can seem like nothing more than an interruption,” says Lisa Haneberg, author of Coaching Up and Down the Generations.” Hallmarked by frugality, this age group is used to hard work and sacrifice. For them, work is work and family is family and rarely do the twain meet. Traditionalists value a hierarchal work structure and can be frustrated by a lack of respect, discipline, rules, and adherence to organization protocols. When coaching or leading the less-patient Gen Yers, for example, Traditionalists are advised to avoid an excessively formal, rule-laden, and heavy-handed approach.
- The Baby Boomers. Sometimes referred to as the “sandwich generation” because they take care of aging parents and their own children, Boomers were born between 1945 and 1964. This group is competitive and wants to win. They’re building careers, and they’re process-oriented. With a population in excess of 80 million, Boomers comprise the most influential group today. They came to ascendency during the eras of space travel, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, television, and legalized abortion. Members of this group value teamwork, status, and personal growth and freedom. Although a strong work ethic will power their career focus, they tend to tiptoe around authority. In general, Boomers expect to make a difference in whatever they do. Like Gen Xers, they have a sense of entitlement and are optimistic despite possible evidence to the contrary. Boomers want feedback, but only periodically, and it must be substantiated and verifiable. When leading, coaching, and communicating with Boomers, says Lisa Haneberg, it will be helpful to remember that “they believe in people skills [and] that business results and relationships are intertwined.”
- Generation Xers are the “show me” and “prove it to me” challengers to the team effort. Born between 1964 and1982, the 45 million Gen Xers were witness to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of AIDS/HIV, Desert Storm, and the advent of technological literacy. These people view work as just a job—they’ll leave with little ado if a better one is presented– and require that it be fun, or at least tangibly rewarding. Self-reliant, informal, these multi-taskers prefer a collaborative work environment without an assertive leadership style; they don’t appreciate your looking over their shoulder. Gen Xers expect immediate feedback, rapid communication, and quick rewards for jobs done well. They usually blend play with work, and their home life with the workplace. Gen Xers want opportunities for growth, but they don’t trust authority. They value their home life as much as their life at work—perhaps even more; don’t expect them to make sacrifices such as voluntarily shifting their vacation time for the sake of a team project or a fellow team member.
- The 75 million members of Generation Y, sometimes referred to as “Millenials,” “Bridgers,” or “NEXters,” are a technologically savvy and globally attuned group accustomed to multi-taxing and team efforts. Although appearing to be disrespectful, they respect diversity, are comfortable communicating across cultures, and are globally, socially and environmentally aware. Impatient, self-confident, surely assertive, Gen Yers were born after 1980. They’re the original latchkey kids, the first generation to be reared with the Internet. Born during the scourge of Enron and corporate greed, their experiences include the Iraq War and the 9/11 disaster. The Gen Y work style is casual and achievement-oriented. Yours is probably their first job, and they hold high expectations of you and themselves. They want instant gratification, a varied physical work environment, immediate and constant feedback– and responsibility from the very first day. Members of this group, however, expect to be regarded as peers rather than lower-level employees: Authority doesn’t impress them. For Gen Yers, work is only a means to an end–they won’t make sacrifices for it—the end being fun and family life. Don’t expect them to make a lifelong career in your organization. However, today’s bleak economy has made some sobering changes in the work expectations of the Gen Yers. They’re more focused on job security, stability, advancement, and good benefits, say Brittany Patzke and Amanda Holland, authors of the State of Alaska’s Working Generations.
In order to coach and influence multigenerational teams, you first have to understand what motivates each generation. Is it money? Promotions? Tangible rewards? Job security? Respect? Time off? Routines? Fun? Responsibility? Using the generational characteristics, above, list the major motivational streams for each generation and share the list with your managers and team leaders.
All employees and team members have certain personal characteristics in common; for example, a desire to be respected. Go through the generational list above, match it to your motivational list, and isolate those common attributes shared by members of your workforce.
The leadership basics
Now that you know what motivates each of the four generations and the characteristics they have in common, you can begin to lay the groundwork for coaching, mentoring, and leveraging influence. It all begins with the basics of leadership. The authors of Working Generations advise that you
- Set the direction. This ties into your vision for the future, itself based on your organization’s history and mission statement. This should be clearly communicated to team leaders and managers; they, in turn, must communicate this information to team members. Why? Because everyone wants to understand how they their work fits into the larger scheme of things. It creates greater value and increased commitment.
- Know your team. This is where coaching and influence begin, where the attitudes and beliefs of individual team members are coached into alignment with the specific goals and objectives of the team. This involves a change in mindsets, and changing them will take time. Say Patzke and Holland, “Leaders who take the time to understand the individuality of each person on their team get greater results. Identifying strengths, weaknesses, personal goals and interests, and each team member’s unique skills or needs allow a leader to achieve a higher level of teamwork and cooperation.”
- In fact, some experts believe communication to be the primary issue in most workplaces. Without effective communication, any direction you set will quickly deteriorate. The operative word is effective, and what works with one generation may not work with another “Each generation has a different influencing style,” advises Preftrain. “If you’re looking for an outcome, make sure you understanding generational influencing styles.” For example, you may want to influence a Traditionalist to coach a Gen Yer by pointing out the benefits to each in terms each can understand. Increase your influence by thinking before you speak. Advises Stacey Hanke in WomensMedia Newsletter, “Take time to think through your ideas and choose words that will tap into areas that your [various generations of] listeners consider important.” Watch how you phrase your words. For instance, don’t qualify an acknowledgment of good work by following it with a “but.” (“You did a good job on that project, but we still need to increase our output by doing more.”)
Do you know the best ways to communicate with the different generations?
Develop a simple message about productivity, a product or service, or a deadline that affects all team members. How will you tailor it to each generation so that it is received and acted upon favorably? How will you deliver it?
Hint: Matures react best to messages that follow protocol—formal, polite, nothing left out. Baby Boomers also prefer formal communication, but with this group communication should be a process, explaining not only how the information will benefit them but asking for their input. The pragmatic Gen Xers react best when communication is informal and practical, telling them of additional action they can take; in other words, “get to the point.” Gen Yers prefer communication that is immediate, collaborative, casual; tell them how the information may benefit the larger social or environmental issues.
Regardless of the generation, however, team leaders and managers have to clearly communicate team expectations and clearly explain the consequences of failing to deliver on them. The communication venues at work may vary from the basic one-on-one in a private, sit-down conversation to a company’s intranet news to text messages, e-mails, cell phones, and team meetings and should be generation-suited. Understanding that members of the Mature and Baby Boomer generations may lack technological savvy can present a prime opportunity for inter-generational mentoring—but make sure that Gen Xers and Gen Yers first appreciate the value of greater experience that older team members bring to the team table.
- “Remember that leaders are chosen.” The influence of a team leader or manager is crucial for cooperation, particularly when working with an age-diverse team. “When a team accepts a leader and the [leader’s] direction,” say Patzke and Holland, “achievements often surpass requirements and expectations.”
Know the expectations of team members.
You hired them and assigned them to certain teams for a reason. You saw their value to the team effort and overall productivity of the organization. Yet their value judgments—and they will make them– have a corrosive influence and can prevent team members from working cohesively toward a common goal. For example, Gen Yers may view Traditionalists on the team as rigid, set in their ways. Traditionalists, on the other hand, may perceive the Gen Yers as lazy
and disrespectful. Baby Boomers, too, may be perceived as rigid, more interested in their own ambitions than in others. Gen Xers, meanwhile, may be perceived as disloyal to the organization, cynical of teamwork, possessing a strong sense of entitlement and perceiving older team members as staying on the job too long and blocking their way to advancement. Can influence overcome this stereotyping? (Remember that you can’t command it to stop.) Should team tasks be restructured to the expectations of age? Or is at least one key how information and insight is presented, and by whom or what? A good coach not only understands the differing needs, expectations, and work styles of the generations but can empathize with their different points of view. In other words, the coach has developed a multigenerational perspective—the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. Says Matt Starcevich of the Center for Coaching and Mentoring: “One of the most fundamental requirements for effective coaching is the ability to understand others’ motives, values, and goals, not enforcing one’s own on others. [This is] a slight variation of the Golden Rule—instead of ‘treating others as you want to be treated,’ coaches should ‘treat others as they want to be treated.’” The key is this: A good coach has learn to use influence in order to be perceived by the various generations on a team as trustworthy, reliable, dependable, responsive—and present. It’s what author Lisa Haneberg refers to as “being real.” Her other suggestions for coaching?
- “Be the one to bend.”
- “Believe in others.”
- “Take the initiative to seek coaching from diverse performers.”
Bending: You may be right about a decision, but by being the first to give in, you’ve demonstrated your interest in the other person and how much you value him or her. Does he or she like an earlier lunch hour? That’s fine. Does he or she want more responsibility? That can be arranged. Does he or she like less supervision? Want greater feedback? Be willing to bend.
Your belief in others: It’s not likely that you hired a looser, is it? You saw a certain worth from the start. Regardless of what you now may see as disorganization, for example, or deadline-laxity, that potential for greatness is still there. You can improve your relationship and gain more cooperation if you reflect that belief, communicate it, and act on it.
Let diverse performers coach you: This is how a coach learns–by collaborating in conversation with the different generations and keying off the verbal cues. Don’t fear the verbal gives-and-takes: They’ll layer your knowledge about the different styles of work and preferences for communication; in turn, your dialogue mate is influenced to learn from you, too. This is highly useful when both parties are from widely disparate generations.
Coaching equals communication
Coaching is about communication. Who initiates it? You, from your leadership position? A manager or a team leader? Well, that sounds logical—after all, optimum performance is paramount—but suppose it is initiated from the other end, by a team member or other employee who draws you into conversation? You aren’t prepared, but do you need to be? And after listening to the other person for a few minutes, do you decide if this calls for coaching? Or course correction? If the former, are you are the correct coach? Should it be someone else? A peer? An influence figure on the team? Experience has shown that coaching initiated by a team member is more appreciated and easier accepted than coaching prescribed by a boss. This reaction is not generation-specific. Prescribed, or “push,” coaching is viewed as humiliating; all generations see it as “being sent to the corner.” In fact, it’s not coaching at all but more likely what Lisa Haneberg labels “performance counseling” or “advice and teaching,” the latter often a management attempt to course-correct an employee on the verge of being fired. Says Haneberg of the opposite approach, “pull” coaching: “Pull coaching is a service, and it will be best delivered when we adopt a service mentality. How we serve, what we serve, and when we serve it should be defined—and requested– by the customer [the other party].” You can make that happen in fairly seamless fashion just by spending time with your team members and getting to know them, just by expressing a genuine interest and concern in their activities both on and off the job. Make sure to be approachable and be open: Don’t control these conversations, don’t come across as judgmental; instead, spend time listening and following up on the verbal and non-verbal cues that you’ll come to invoice as opportunities for coaching. You’ll learn a lot about employees that way– their intergenerational concerns, expectations, ambitions, frustrations, jealousies, expectations for feedback. Some may even air concerns that communication is be too frequent, supervision too constant, the workplace too structured, or perhaps some feel that the leadership style is too demanding. By applying the influence of pull, team members can be drawn into revealing conversations.
When two peers voluntarily come together to coach and be coached, the process can be synergistic. As each learns from the other–and holds these conversations in confidence–the process builds trust and a more collaborative work community. What do coaching partners talk about? It can range from a frank discussion and objective look at the personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities of coaching partners, to suggestions for improving work habits, to the ins and outs of working in teams or climbing the organizational ladder, to handling deadline pressures, sharing viewpoints and personal idiosyncrasies, to sharing suggestions for workplace improvement. Mutual coaching, however, is more than discussion. Its real value, particularly among multiple generations, is to provide mutual “I’m-there-for-you” support. And when peers of different generations coach each other, it creates an open window for understanding and appreciating the expectations, aspirations, and needs of the other.
Applying influence across the generations
The ability to influence others is a core leadership competency, advises Sally Stanleigh of the firm Business Improvement Architects. While influence strategies can improve the effectiveness of team members, they’ll work only if you’ve adapted your personal style to have a positive impact on others. This means being perceived as open and trustworthy. Seeing others as allies rather than as “uncooperative” or “disrespectful.” Being known as a good listener. By training yourself to listen, you can key your influence strategies to the specific expectations, concerns, and work habits of team members. This is particularly essential when coaching across the generations. Reporting in the Portsmouth Herald, Intellectus suggests seven influence strategies that can improve team performance. Implementing these seven strategies is not as difficult as you may think. However, you may need personal or peer coaching yourself to successfully employ them.
- “Establish rapport.” Establishing rapport is less about what you say than about the way you say it; in other words, suggests Intellectus, suspend judgment and match your communication style to that of the other person. Listen, observe, and process. After all, people are more comfortable with those they like and who seem most like them—even if both parties are from different generations.
- “Deepen your relationships.” Regardless of the generation, learn to invest yourself in another. Intellectus suggests that you learn to “express appreciation for the work or efforts of others often and sincerely; quickly admit being wrong and, equally important, be gentle in pointing out other’s mistakes; take a genuine interest in the other person you are relating to; smile regularly and show your liking for other people.” Sincerity is key.
- “Increase your ability to empathize with others.” Some refer to this as the “ability to see the me in thee.” This is not the time to impose your agenda on the other person. Suspend judgment and continue to listen. Do you care about what he or she is saying? Show it by asking questions, open-ended ones in particular. This deepens the interaction and gives you insight into the other person’s viewpoint, concerns, priorities, and comfort zone.
- “Use reason and the strategy of ‘re-framing.’” This strategy can only be effective, advises Intellectus, if you know your audience and have empathized with their perspective and priorities. For example, if you know that Joe, a Boomer, views his team appointment as failing to advance his self-interest, rephrase the directive to his perspective so that he can view his appointment in a new light. This is much the same as re-framing Little Red Riding Hood to view her embarked on a mercy mission to feed an ailing, elderly relative. Align your re-framing of issues to the perspectives of different generations. Reports Intellectus: “People who are good at influencing groups often employ multiple rationales and perspectives behind a particular choice in their presentations—multiple to better align with the different views and thinking with the group.”
Remember: Problems are opportunities, and people can be influenced only if you leave your personal desires for work perfection at the door.
Your organization has just announced a change in company procedure. You need to get a buy-in from your multigenerational team members. First, analyze what you now know about each generation and decide how each is likely to perceive a procedural change. Now reframe the change so that most employees will buy into it.
- “Appeal to the other person’s self-interest.” Public relations, advertising, and sales employ this technique to raise awareness and market a product or service. Knowing which self-interest to target means understanding the perspectives and motivational “triggers” of your stratified team membership. One size won’t fit all; only through your ability to empathize, listen, and ask questions can you develop a range of appeals to fit the self-interests of your multigenerational workforce.
- “Trigger automatic behavioral responses when appropriate [and if ethical].” If someone hollers “Fire!” we run. If the grocery store hands out free lunch samples, we take one. If we see a bystander looking up at the sky, we do, too. Long-standing research reveals that people are more inclined to say “yes” to people they like and respect, to accept and follow directives that come from legitimate authority, to behave the way they see other people behave, to do something courteous for someone who has been courteous to them, to behave in ways consistent with a choice they’ve made, and to take advantage of last-chance opportunities. While the latter may fluctuate with age and greater experience—e.g., Traditionalists might not jump for a blue-light special–the remaining behavioral characteristics are generally consistent across generations. Yet to successfully coach others, says Matt Starcevich of the Center for Coaching and Mentoring, “we must learn what they want, how they feel, and how they view the world.”
- “Maintain and sustain relationships through regular contact.” Influence strategies won’t work if you aren’t regularly cultivating successful relationships.
It’s a tough economy, and your business is starting to fail. You need to increase the productive output of your teams, and you’re exploring several options. Reflect on the following questions for a few minutes and then answer them.
Can you get greater cooperation and effort from a Gen Xer if you offer four-day work weeks and 10-hour days?
What reaction to such an announcement would you get from a Traditionalist?
From a Gen Yer?
A Baby Boomer?
You offer an extended lunch hour to the team member who comes up with an innovative way to increase sales of energy drink Funda, a company product now in its mature stage.
From which generational sector(s) are you likely to draw the most interest and effort?
If you rethought the incentive and instead offered a small, financial bonus, from which generational sector(s) are you likeliest to draw the most interest and effort? The least?
You need to provide some negative performance feedback to a GenYer on the team, but you aren’t sure how she will receive it. In which form should you provide it? Publicly? Privately? In a general fashion to the entire team in meeting without naming names, then followed up by a one-on-one conversation? Hint: Remember that both Gen Xers and Gen Yers like daily feedback, either through e-mail or in person.
When coaching may not be the answer
A GenYer has been hired for the team because of his technological expertise. However, team members soon note that he rebels against authority and organizational structure. In addition, he demands immediate responsibility for a new project. Unfortunately, advises CrackMarketing on its web site, “the acquisition of lasting skills and learning capabilities is a challenge that all organizations have to face. Training individuals to excel in technical knowledge alone cannot ensure job competence. It all comes down to improving the behavioral patterns of a person.” However, behavior-based coaching, which provides a person with the necessary behavioral feedback about performance, may not work with a Gen Yer who is merely exhibiting the characteristics of his generation. While there are several other types of coaching that can result in improved working habits and efficiency, Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Flipczak in Generations at Work suggest other ways out of the dilemma:
- “Accommodate employee differences.” For example, meet their personal scheduling needs and their work/life balance issues.
- “Create non-traditional workplace choices.” Structure the physical workplace around the people who work there and the work being done. In addition, eliminate bureaucratic red tape.
- “Operate for a sophisticated management style.” This means less micro-managing: Give the team the big picture, let team members paint it in. Supply feedback in a manner appropriate to each generation. And make sure to appropriately reward and acknowledge team members for their work.
“Respect competence and initiative, but hire carefully to assure a good match between people and work.” Treat all generations and even the newest employees as though they are capable, motivated, and, says Generations at Work, “as though they have great things to offer.”
- “Nourish retention.” Offer coaching, training, mentoring, role-playing, `simulations, and interactive classes. Make sure to provide opportunities for lateral movement and broader assignments.
As a best-practices final suggestion, consider this: Approximately 40 percent of the workforce faces retirement within less than a decade. “Knowledge transfer is going to be critical in order to maximize individual and organizational talent,” advises Human Resources professional Genevieve Roberts, who strongly advises inter-generational mentoring as a way to bridge the transfer.
Books, Articles, and Websites for Your Reference
Ballone, C. (2007). Consulting your clients to leverage the multi-generational workforce. Journal of Practical Consulting, (2)1.
BlessingWhite. (2011, January). 2011 Employee Engagement Report. Skillman, NJ: BlessingWhite.
Crackmarketing. (2010). The benefits of peer coaching groups. Retrieved from http://www.streetdirectory.com/travel_guide/21716/executive_coaching/the_benefits_of_p…
Ibid. (2010). What is behavior based coaching. Retrieved from http://www.streetdirectory.com/travel_guide/21757/executive_coaching/what_is_behavior…
Haneberg, L. (2010). Coaching up and down the generations. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Hanke, S. (2010, March 22). Improve your business communication skills. WomensMedia Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.womensmedia.com/lunchtalk/business-communication-using-words/that-influence-a…
Intellectus Business Coaching. (2010, September 13). 7 strategies to influence and improve effectiveness—presented in sequence. Portsmouth Herald. Retrieved from http://www.intellectuscoaching.com/2010/09/7-strategies-to-influence-and-improve-effecti…
Marston, C. (2010, April 22). Expert says understanding the differences between today’s four distinct generations is critical to running a successful collision repair operation. Retrieved from http://ppgmvp.com/ge…
Mitchell, B. (2005). Understanding and managing different generations. Achieve Solutions. Retrieved from http://www.valueoptions.com/spotlight_Y/W/pdfs/articles/understanding-and-M…
Patzke, B., and Holland, A. (2008). Working Generations. Juneau, AK: State of Alaska.
Preftrain.com (n.d.). G3 intepersonal skills for 3 different generations. Retrieved from http://www.preftrain.com/training-programs/outlines/g3-interpersonal-skills-for-3-different
Roberts, G. (2011). Multiple Generations at work. Retrieved from http://www.TitanHR.com
Schweitzer, T. (2007, March 6). U.S. workers hate their jobs more than ever. Inc. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/news/articles/200703/work.html
Stanleigh, S. (2011). Using influence to achieve extraordinary performance. Retrieved from http://www.bia.ca/articles/Using-Influence-to-Achieve-Extraordinary-Performance.htm
Starcevich, M. (2010). Coaching generation x. Retrieved from http://www.coachingandmentoring.com/Articles/X’s.html
Thorn, A., McLeod, M., Goldsmith, M. (2007). Peer-coaching overview. Retrieved from http://www.marshallgoldsmithlibrary.com/docs/articles/Peer-Coaching-Overvie…
Zemke, R., Raines, C., and Flipczak, B. (2000). Generations at Work: Managing the clash of veterans, boomers, xers, and nexters in your workplace. New York: NY. American Management Association.