Bridging the age gap: managing a wide range of generations is increasingly common © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Does everyone in your workplace speak the same language, across the generations? Do younger workers know what it means to “circle back by EOD”? Do older colleagues know how to “slay”, or that their thumbs-up emoji could be interpreted as passive-aggressive?

Managing up to four generations in one organisation — Boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z — has become increasingly common and is one of the thorniest challenges for executives to grasp.

According to a survey of 4,000 workers in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and Germany, published this year by the Adaptavist Group, generational tensions are now playing out between younger and older employees in many organisations.

Half of employees over the age of 50, for example, said they were annoyed by younger colleagues’ lack of traditional tools such as pens, while 47 per cent of Gen Z employees said older workers slowed things down with dated working techniques. A third of teams reported confusion over the use of emojis.

But only 6 per cent of organisations strongly agreed that their leaders know how to manage intergenerational teams effectively, when asked by Deloitte for a report in 2020.

That gap is why French business school Iéseg has introduced “intergenerational workshops” as part of its executive programme in human development and transformation management. The sessions explore how different generations find meaning and relationships at work, how they relate to hierarchy and working environments, and how they communicate.

However, Bernard Coulaty, academic director of the course, says the most significant lessons come from reverse mentoring, which follows the workshops, with the class of a dozen executives each paired with a young student or graduate of Ieseg’s grande école programme. The pairs meet regularly to offer each other advice and share ideas on how to work, communicate, and manage better — or be better managed by someone from another generation.

“In fact, most pairs have realised that, in the end, there are fewer differences in the expectations and operating methods of each generation than a superficial reading might suggest,” says Coulaty. “Everyone wants meaning in their work, autonomy and responsibility, more communication and horizontal management, and — above all — to be recognised for their true worth.”

At the end of the programme, the executives and students present recommendations for stronger intergenerational working. The last cohort suggested more empathetic listening and openness, creating opportunities for social interaction, and institutionalising reverse mentoring.

“There are real opportunities in leveraging each other’s experiences,” says Charlène Geffroy, a transformation director for Oracle who is enrolled on the current programme. “Diverse perspectives and knowledge sharing lead to enhanced creativity and innovation — but everyone must have the same space and time to speak and express their ideas.”

Other schools and academics are exploring what they can do to prepare executives for multigenerational management.

“This is the first time in history we’ve seen this number of generations working together,” says Lily Bi, president of accreditation body AACSB International, “but schools are also seeing more students from different generations in the same classrooms. This can only help students prepare and develop the interpersonal skills to navigate a multigenerational professional environment.”

Some academics play down the impact of generational gaps. Mauro Guillén, professor of multinational management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has just published a book on the topic. In The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society, Guillén says that, instead of endlessly debating generational differences and stereotypes in the workplace, organisations should embrace the concept of “Perennials”. These are employees who “make connections across generations and are not defined by their own. They don’t think or act their age.”

Similarly, HEC Paris professor Anne-Laure Sellier says schools must help to “de-silo” generations. As one of the directors of the Gen Z Observatory — a think-tank comprising students from HEC and ESCP, alongside employees of luxury goods conglomerate Cartier — Sellier argues for greater emphasis on creating a shared language across generations.

“I often read that Gen Zs are the worst people to work with and that they’re unmanageable,” she says. “But it seems to me that it’s more an issue of language norms used than a fundamentally different look at the world.”

Prof Sellier advocates for including young people on teams, and even boards, sooner. “At least hear if they have something really important to say . . . create space for them to speak up and be able to converse with older generations.”

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But executives do need to observe generational differences when it comes to risk assessment, says Øyvind Kvalnes, a professor at BI Norwegian Business School, who teaches an executive education course called ytringsklima og ledelse, which roughly translates as “freedom of speech and leadership”.

Different generations are likely to have different perceptions and experiences regarding risk, Prof Kvalnes says. Research has documented how children’s scope for risky play has decreased and he notes that employers report a decline in younger employees’ abilities to make judgments about risk — what is safe and what is dangerous.

“Executive education programmes should provide research-based knowledge about varieties in risk perceptions between generations,” he suggests. “Young adults, for example, may need stronger evidence than previous generations that they’re not risking their careers by voicing disagreement. Older executives shouldn’t assume younger employees have the same experience and familiarity with risk as they had at their age.”

Leaders should also be aware of how younger workers want to be led, says Rebecca Piekkari, chair of international business at Aalto University Executive Education, who teaches diversity, equity and inclusion.

“They’re looking for bosses who don’t centralise all decision-making power and authority around themselves but rather practise leadership in a more shared and collective way,” says Prof Piekkari. She favours a more “servant leadership” style, where leaders give priority to people, their wellbeing and professional growth. “Servant leadership style may come across as minimalist — but research evidence shows that it works.”

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