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The Value of Generational Differences in the Workplace, and How to Leverage Them

The Value of Generational Differences in the Workplace, and How to Leverage Them

You’ve probably read the negative stereotypes used to describe millennials in the workplace: “The work ethic is fading among millennials” or “Lazy, entitled narcissists.” The all-too-common refrains about older generations in the workplace are just as harsh: “Baby boomers are stuck in their ways” or “Can’t learn new skills or keep up with the times.”

Young people are narcissistic? Older people can’t listen and learn? Really? I disagree.

At the core of the values I see millennials embrace is the notion: “Follow your dream and the rest will follow.” They want their lives (including work) to be purposeful and aligned with their values.

Don’t we all? We all want to know how what we’re doing matters in the bigger picture, how we can contribute and add value, and how to apply our passions to solve important problems. Meaning matters. Purpose matters. Contributing your full self matters to all of us, regardless of generation.

According to Forbes, the average office environment houses up to four generations under one roof, including Veterans (born before 1946), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1979), and Millennials (1980-2000). And while common descriptions of these generations are often stereotypes, studies find members of various generations do have different communication styles, strengths, and weaknesses. As with any type of diversity, by creating an inclusive environment for everyone, you open up space for full expression and contribution by all the generations in the workplace.

The question we as business leaders have to answer is, “How can we leverage the strengths of each generation to create a more effective workforce?” To build trust and encourage creativity among different generations in the workplace, I recommend the following specific steps to build an inclusive company culture.

Emphasize diversity.

Articulate that collaboration and partnering across diverse teams is a core value in your organization, and then model that behavior. Hire for it.

Be open for learning and feedback.

Ensure you have adequate mentoring and coaching in place for all team members. That means older and younger generations sharing skills and ideas together. Clearly articulate the values and associated behaviors that you expect within your work environment, and speak to the values in every feedback conversation.

[Related: Think Twice Before Hiring Your Leaders: Their Values Dictate Your Brand]

Create staff focus groups.

The aim of these focus groups should be learning more about staff views on different issues. Ensure that all groups — including all ages — are represented, and give those groups accountability for coming up with solutions to organizational challenges.

Disrupt yourselves.

If you only recruit from referrals, you may have to work harder to actively recruit a diverse workforce. We made the decision to co-locate a nonprofit that is committed to empowering youth activists in our office. I started attending Creative Mornings, a networking opportunity that introduces me to creators and cuts across socioeconomic, industry, generational, and racial boundaries, to help me recruit and hire more inclusively.

[Related: 5 Ways Leaders Can Show Appreciation for Their Administrative Assistants]

Teach team members how to manage and thrive in conflict.

Conflict will arise, and in fact it’s where the diversity of thoughts represented on your team can be best expressed. Model how to disagree with respect and civility.

Listen to understand, rather than to respond. Learn how to articulate and defend your point of view, and how to be gracious about accepting the outcome of the conversation. Remember, you're all pulling for the same team.

Use formal and informal communications channels.

Err on the side of transparency in every channel. Casual CEO roundtable happy hour, formal all-hands meetings, one-on-one walking meetings, formal reviews, and informal coaching are all examples. Be sure to articulate expectations about whether a meeting is formal or informal, and be ready to break the ice at that roundtable.


This will drive regarding priorities, decision-making, career paths, performance, and metrics. Communication and clarity help the organization arrive at a shared vocabulary around which all generations in the workplace can align and work together.

[Related: How to Create a Free Flow of Information Between Leaders and Employees]


Shannon Adkins is the CEO of Future State, a human-centered management consulting firm based in Oakland, California.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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