Originally published: 02.01.19 by James Leichter
Managers will be more effective leaders once they understand the generational differences in their workforce.
While on a business trip, I ran into a very successful person. Completely self-made, he had started several successful companies and amassed quite a fortune. I asked him what he felt was the single most important skill or attribute behind his success.
Without hesitation, he said, “I am good with people.” He went on to explain that he had learned the skill of being able to quickly size up people so that he could effectively communicate wit them using ideas and metaphors they could understand and appreciate.
I have written two articles that are closely related to this: “The Importance of Employee Retention” (HVACR Business, September 2018) and “Use Personality Assessments to Manage Your Business” (HVACR Business, July 2018).
In those articles, I mention the importance of understanding personality types when selling to prospects and dealing with coworkers. In this article, I will specifically cover how to tailor your leadership style to different generations of people. By combining an understanding of generational differences and personality types, you will be in a far superior position to deal with a wide variety of people.
The American workforce can be divided into five distinct groups which are identified as generations. Each of these generations has formed their own set of values and attitudes towards work that are often different from the other generation.
With the workforce growing older, this may be the first time that five generations of people find themselves working together. This creates a challenge for managers because each generation differs in how they view work and each requires a slightly different style of leadership.
There are five generations in the workforce today. They are: Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z.
Note: There is some disagreement among experts as to what the actual birthdate ranges are for each generation. For the purposes of this article, I will use “Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace” by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines and Bob Filipczak as my source.
The Veteran Generation was born 1922-1943. I realize that this generation is quickly leaving the workforce. However, many people in this age group find themselves needing to work or simply wanting to work.
Some might call them the “Greatest Generation.” They are the most straight forward, no-nonsense generation. They are frank, polite, practical and very dedicated to their work. They believe in conformity, authority and rules. They have a very defined sense of right and wrong. Their personal relationships are based on personal sacrifice.
They are respectful to authority and believe in a hierarchical style of leadership. One of their biggest turnoffs is rudeness and vulgarity.
Leadership Tips: They want structure and strong leadership. Create a firm set of rules and enforce them equally. You must not play favorites. If someone is late to work, you must enforce policies otherwise the Veteran Generation will see you as unfair and weak.
Do not allow rudeness and vulgarity in the workplace. If you are a manager or owner, it is especially important that you do not curse or treat people in a rude manner. This is a Veteran Generation pet peeve.
Allow this generation to share their wisdom with younger people. Give them the opportunity to mentor and train members of the other generations. Personally, this is my favorite generation. We should all enjoy them while we still have them.
Baby Boomers were born 1944-1960. They are optimistic, expressive and possess a strong work ethic. They have a strong commitment to quality and doing a good job. Often, they view their career and themselves as the same thing.
They are likely to put in long hours at the office, including evenings and weekends. They enjoy solving problems. They believe in building their career over the long term and having loyalty to their employer. They will either love or hate their managers and will likely be blunt about their feelings. They prefer leadership through consensus. They are family oriented and value health and wellness.
Leadership Tips: You must keep this generation busy and give them an opportunity to make a difference, otherwise they will look elsewhere for career opportunities. Be sure to show a sincere appreciation for their hard work and dedication to your company.
This generation did not grow up with technology. Pair them up with younger generations to teach them about technology. Do not assume they can’t or will not embrace technology. This highly driven generation has a strong work ethic. They will learn what they must to do their jobs effectively.
Gen X was born 1961-1980. Largely independent, they have a skeptical often cynical outlook on life. They don’t define themselves through their work. They see themselves as free agents and marketable commodities and can be “job jumpers.”
They are largely unimpressed with the job titles of their authority figures. They believe in leadership through competency. They are often reluctant to commit to single close, personal relationships.
Some of their most admired leaders are Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan. Their biggest turnoffs are clichés and hype.
Leadership Tips: Clear and open communication is important for this group. Allow them to be part of the decision-making process. Ask them for advice whenever possible. Managers need to earn their respect as opposed to demanding it.
Reduce their tendency to “job jump” by explaining why the company is doing what it is doing. Provide a career path, mentoring and ongoing training. Allow them to feel important.
Also known as Millennials, or Nexters, this generation was born between 1981 and 2000. They have a very hopeful and positive outlook on life. They are determined workers but are concerned with balancing their work and personal life.
They want flexibility in work hours, appearance and desire a relaxed work environment. They are respectful to authority and likely believe in leadership through consensus with an emphasis on team effort and “pulling together.” They value teamwork but want everything done immediately.
They are concerned with affecting change and making an impact. In their personal lives, they are likely to have many good friends as opposed to one or two “best” friends. They believe in inclusion and loyalty.
Leadership Tips: They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Be sure your company has a clear mission and purpose. Show them how they can help the company achieve its mission and purpose. They will want to use technology to solve problems. Provide a flexible comfortable work environment. Ask them for feedback. Praise them in public.
Sometimes referred to as Post-Millennials, Gen Z is anyone born after the year 2000. They have never lived without the internet and are very tech savvy. Great multitaskers. They are imaginative and believe that they can change the world. They are very entrepreneurial.
Since they are just entering the workforce, little is known about their leadership styles and preferences.
Leadership Tips: Start with the idea that they are much like Generation Y. Remember, this generation has likely never heard a dial tone or busy signal. They are super tech savvy and will expect your company to be using tablets and other technology. Pay close attention so that you can learn more about them and adjust to their values and attitudes towards work.
When speaking about generational differences, it is easy to generalize and oversimplify. While everyone is unique, each generation is largely shaped by the experiences encountered during their formative years. With five generations in the workplace, it is important for leaders to understand the basics of each generation so that they can quickly adapt to their differences. Keeping each generation happy will be an ongoing challenge.
That challenge is one that contracting companies and their leaders should begin confronting as soon as possible.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about leadership principles and strategies, visit EGIA.org/HVACR-Leadership and download a free packing of training resources including videos, templates, industry research and more.