7. Dynamics of a Multigenerational Workforce

In the past 10 years, more than 200 books have been published about the difficulties of managing a multigenerational workforce, and the number of articles in the business and popular media is many times larger. Most of these writings are based on the authors’ experiences.

In this chapter, we draw on the growing base of academic research devoted to understanding the work-related values, attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics that lead to intergenerational friction in the workplace. A lot of work has been done over the past few years to develop a better understanding of the causes of this friction. The research shows that there are real differences that distinguish one generation from the next. But more importantly, there are very strong perceptions, some more justified than others, that may lead to friction in your environment. By understanding what underlies these perceptions, and their dynamics, you will be able to inspire your team to function at a higher level.

Managing Generation X1 was published 20 years ago. Reading it today, it is clear that perceptions of Xers in the workplace have changed over time, even while media stereotypes have stubbornly remained unchanged. But that does not diminish the importance of today’s perceptions. Perceptions drive important decisions. Stereotypes are known to influence hiring, promotion, and compensation decisions.2

In 2009, the Conference Board of Canada published the results of its study of generational differences in the workplace.3 The study included Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers. The Conference Board administered a two-part questionnaire. The first part consisted of 20 statements, which are listed in Table 7.1 (and repeated in Tables 7.2 and 7.3). Participants in the study were asked simply whether they agreed or disagreed that the statements accurately described their own generation. Next, they were asked whether those same statements were applicable to the two other generations in the study. In the second part, respondents were asked whether 60 additional statements applied to them personally.

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Adapted from the Conference Board of Canada (2009) Winning the “Generation Wars”: Making the most of generational differences and similarities in the workplace.4

Table 7.1 Baby Boom Generation: Percentage Agreement by Boomers, Xers, and Millennials

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Adapted from the Conference Board of Canada (2009) Winning the “Generation Wars”: Making the most of generational differences and similarities in the workplace.5

Table 7.2 Generation X: Percentage Agreement by Boomers, Xers, and Millennials

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.Adapted from the Conference Board of Canada (2009) Winning the “Generation Wars”: Making the most of generational differences and similarities in the workplace.6

Table 7.3 Millennials: Percentage Agreement by Boomers, Xers, and Millennials

The Conference Board study shows that Boomers, Xers, and Millennials all tend to see themselves differently than others see them. There were a few cases in which one generation agreed with how another saw itself, but for the most part, there was relatively little agreement. Respondents’ perceptions of their own generation were more favorable than their perceptions of other generations. This was true for respondents from all generations.

The perceptions reported in the study closely parallel generational stereotypes found in the popular media. Millennials were viewed as comfortable with technology and adaptable but somewhat disloyal and difficult to manage. Boomers were generally seen by the other generations as loyal and results-oriented yet not overly adaptable—especially with respect to their comfort with technology. Gen Xers were perceived by the other generations to be skilled in multitasking and willing to learn new things but also somewhat independent and skeptical of authority. Out of all of the 60 behavior-by-generation ratings, there was only one in which all three generations agreed: Respondents from all generations were unanimous in viewing Millennials as “comfortable with technology.”

We will take a closer look at issues on which the generations agreed and disagreed after reviewing how each generation perceived itself.

Table 7.1 shows how Boomers were rated by themselves, by Xers, and by Millennials. The last column shows the consensus rating, which is the average of the ratings given by members of all three generations. Table 7.2 shows how Gen X was rated, and Table 7.3 shows the ratings for the Millennial generation. These results are based on responses from 304 Boomers, 300 Xers, and 306 Millennials.

Keep in mind that these are perceptions, not objective measurements. However, because we are discussing relationships between groups, perceptions might be more important than any objective measures available.

Let us first look at how Boomers rated their own generation, before we continue to the next two tables. Boomers see themselves as loyal (plans to remain with the organization = 80%, accepts authority = 76%) and effective (gives maximum effort = 80%, results-driven = 79%, doesn’t require close supervision = 71%, emphasizes following procedures = 74%, knows how to get what they want, skilled in multitasking).

Boomers see themselves as not very open to change but willing to learn new things. Boomers also see themselves as not particularly interested in working alone and having a very slight dislike for informality.

Comparing the Self (Boomers self ratings), Xers, and Millennials columns in Table 7.1, it is evident that Baby Boomers perceive their own generation to be higher on each of the 20 characteristics than Gen Xers or Millennials see them.

Everyone agrees that Boomers:

Image Trust the organization

Image Plan to remain with the organization

Image Are ambivalent about working alone

On the other hand, there are some sizable discrepancies between how Boomers rated themselves and how Millennials and Xers rated them. For Boomers, the areas with the biggest disconnects between how Boomers saw themselves and how the other generations viewed them are:

Image Willing to learn new things

Image Gives maximum effort

Image Skilled in multitasking

Image Comfortable with technology

Image Open to change

Table 7.2 tells us that everyone agrees that Generation X is comfortable with technology, is willing to learn new things, accepts diversity, is skilled in multitasking, is open to change, enjoys working in teams, does not like working alone, and does not trust the organization or plan to stay long.

There are a few discrepancies, however. Xers saw themselves as significantly higher in giving maximum effort than either Boomers or Millennials saw them. Also, Millennials rated Xers much lower on liking informality and much higher on trusting the organization. Similarly, Boomers are ambivalent about Xers being results-driven, while Xers rated themselves fairly highly.

Everyone agrees that Millennials:

Image Are comfortable with technology

Image Are willing to learn new things

Image Like informality

Image Require supervision

Image Plan to leave

Image Don’t follow procedures

Image Don’t like to work alone

Image Accept diversity

The areas with the biggest disconnect between how Millennials perceived themselves and how the other generations saw them are the following:

Image Listens carefully

Image Results-driven

Image Accepts authority

Image Gives maximum effort

Image Asks for help when needed

Image Shares information

Again, we hasten to point out that these are perceptions. However, they are also challenges to be addressed.

Here are some things that jump out at us when we compare all three tables:

Image No one is particularly good at listening. Boomers rate their generational cohort fairly high on this behavior (73% of Boomers agree that Boomers listen carefully), but Millennials and Xers disagree sharply. The average rating for all groups by all groups is below 50%.

Image Sharing information seems to be a challenge for everyone.

Image Boomers rated themselves higher overall (1,315) than Xers rated themselves (1,261) or Millennials (1,087).

Image Xers had the highest average rating (1,150) compared to Boomers (1,075) and Millennials (894).

Image Millennials and Boomers have the biggest disconnect. They are the farthest apart in how they see each other.

As a whole, each generation saw itself more favorably than the others saw it. This is consistent with the tendency for people to rate themselves favorably. This tendency is well known among social scientists. Cognitive psychologists have documented a number of perceptual biases related to this tendency.

For a few attributes, the discrepancy in perceptions is quite large. For example, Baby Boomers saw themselves as far more open to change, skilled in multitasking, comfortable with technology, willing to learn new things, sharing of information, giving of effort, and team oriented than Xers or Millennials saw them. Likewise, Millennials saw themselves as far more skilled in multitasking, asking for help, careful listeners, accepting of authority, and sharing of information than Boomers or Xers saw them.

In contrast, there is relatively little disagreement about Generation X.

We provide a brief overview of perceptual biases and then examine several of the larger perceptual gaps in detail below.

Perceptual Biases

Attribution theory is a model of how people attribute responsibility for an event. Attribution theory describes two biases that are really two sides of the same coin. The first bias, called the fundamental attribution error, is the tendency to attribute poor outcomes in others to some internal flaw in the other’s character. The corollary to the fundamental attribution error is the self-serving bias, in which individuals tend to excuse themselves for their own lapses. The self-serving bias, for example, leads us to continue to see ourselves as punctual even as we arrive late to a meeting because, after all, it’s not our fault if the barista got our drink order wrong three times in a row.

Another example is the overconfidence bias. This is a more general tendency to overrate our ability or contribution. The most humorous demonstration of this comes from couples who are each asked to estimate their contribution to the household chores. Each member is asked privately to estimate his or her individual contribution. When the totals are added up, it seems that each couple is benefitting from a combined 140% contribution!

Identifying Biases in the Conference Board Results

There appear to be many examples of perceptual biases at work in the Canadian Conference Board data. For example, the first line of Table 7.1 shows that 48% of Baby Boomers who participated in this study agreed that Boomers are open to change. However, just 27% of Gen Xers agreed, and only 19% of Millennials agreed that Boomers are open to change.

As you can see, there is a pretty wide gap in perceptions. Thirty-one percent of all of the survey respondents together on average agreed that Boomers are open to change. Gen Xers were just slightly below the multi-generational average, meaning they are most accurate in their perceptions. Boomers’ perception of themselves is 17% above the average, indicating they have a significantly inflated view of their own openness to change, while Millennials’ perception of Boomers is 12% below the average.

The gaps are even larger for the next item, skilled in multitasking. Forty-one percent of Xers and 39% of Millennials agreed that Boomers are skilled in multitasking, whereas 74% of Boomers thought the statement was accurate. This could be the result of a difference in interpretation of what multitasking means between the different cohorts. It might be that for Boomers, multitasking means managing more than one project at a time or working down a list of tasks that need to be accomplished during the day, whereas for Millennials, multitasking might mean having multiple chat sessions open on their desktop while working on a spreadsheet and listening to a podcast. We don’t have the answer. A perceptual gap of this magnitude indicates that the concept of multitasking is not the same for the three groups.

The Conference Board of Canada report does not address whether the study participants all interpreted the survey questions the same way. However, another team of researchers did address this problem. John Meriac and Christina Banister of the University of Missouri and David Woehr of the University of Tennessee conducted a study using a survey instrument called the Multidimensional Work Ethic Profile (MWEP), in which they showed that Millennials, Xers, and Boomers interpreted many of the MWEP questions differently.7 For example, one of the items from the MWEP that is interpreted differently by Boomers and Xers is “By working hard, a person can overcome every obstacle that life presents.” Considering what we covered in the last chapter regarding the experiences of Xers growing up, it’s easy to see how they might agree that hard work would help to overcome many obstacles but not every obstacle.

Clearly, Millennials and Xers didn’t see Boomers as being nearly as open to change or skilled in multitasking as Boomers saw themselves. Very likely this was the result of the same mental process that causes people to see themselves more favorably than is warranted. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the observers’ (in this case, Gen Xers’ and Millennials’) views were correct, either. We don’t have enough data here to tell what the “real” answer is, but most likely it’s somewhere between the three.

Something Else Going on Besides Just Overconfidence

In terms of whether Boomers are skilled in multitasking, Gen Xers agreed 41% and Millennials agreed 39%. Statistically, this is not a significant difference and we can say that Gen Xers and Millennials were in full agreement with one another that Boomers are not particularly good at multitasking. Because there is no meaningful difference between the Millennial and Xer assessments, it seems fair to conclude that there is no Xer or Millennial bias and that their view is closer to the truth.

However, when it comes to openness to change, it seems there might be some additional dynamics that account for the difference in how Xers and Millennials rated Boomers. It might be that Boomers shut down Millennial suggestions substantially more than they do suggestions from Xers. This would cause Millennials to legitimately feel that Boomers are not open to change and to rate Boomers 8% lower than Xers rate them (19% and 27%, respectively).

Something similar might underlie the difference in Millennials’ and Xers’ perceptions of whether Boomers like informality. Forty-five percent of Boomer respondents agreed that Boomers like informality (Table 7.1, line 16). As with openness to change, Millennials and Xers disagreed with Boomers and each other. Twenty-four percent of Millennials and 34% of Xers agreed that Boomers like informality. Without additional data, we can’t know for certain, but it seems probable that something in the Millennials’ experience of Boomers accounts for the 10-percentage-point difference. It’s easy to imagine that Boomers dislike Millennials’ casualness and are not shy about their dislike. Boomers have consistently complained about the Millennials’ abrasiveness, and in the same study, Boomers agreed 77% that Millennials like informality. It seems fair to suppose that there might be a little mutual resentment around this issue.

In addition to questions about Boomers, Xers, and Millennials, the Canadian Conference Board also asked respondents to rate themselves on 59 different workplace behaviors in 12 different categories, including teamwork, conscientiousness, sociability, communication style, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Interestingly, for the most part, there is not much difference between the generations. For instance, Boomers, Xers, and Millennials agreed with the statement “I am passionate” 77%, 75%, and 74%, respectively. Boomers, Xers, and Millennials also had very similar levels of agreement with “I like to work in teams” (55%, 57%, and 61%, respectively). This is worth taking a moment to consider. When answering the same question, but with reference to their generation rather than themselves personally, 62% of Xers agreed that Gen Xers enjoy working in teams. For Millennials, the difference when answering on behalf of their generation as opposed to personally was even greater, at 67% versus 61%. Boomers came closest, at 56% (my generation) versus 55% (me). Millennials and Xers showed a little bias in favor of their groups over themselves individually.

However, while Boomers came closest when rating themselves personally versus rating their generation as a whole on being team players, they had the greatest mismatch between how they saw themselves in comparison to how the other generations saw them. Only 30% of Millennials and 41% of Xers agreed that Boomers enjoy working in teams. As with openness to change, we have to assume that some intergenerational dynamic is responsible for this gap. As before, we have to speculate. It’s worth noting, before we say anything else, that Boomers rated Xers relatively high here. In fact, Boomers rated Xers higher than they rated themselves. It’s also worth noting that Boomers rated Millennials fairly well—not as high as they rated themselves but much higher than Millennials rated Boomers. Finally, Xers give Millennials the highest intergenerational rating. These last three observations suggest that there is no strong bias against Millennials or Xers in this area. Very likely, there is something unintended or unconscious in the behavior of Boomers that Xers and Millennials perceive as exclusionary. It may be that Boomers have greater tenure within their respective organizations and don’t extend the same level of effort to interact with others outside their cohort or with “kids” they expect not to stay with the organization for more than 12 months.

This interpretation of the Conference Board of Canada results is consistent with findings from other studies. For example, Scott Lester and colleagues conducted a study in which they asked workers to indicate their preferences for a number of workplace elements, including electronic communications, working in teams, and flexibility. Their key finding was that perceived differences outnumber actual differences.8 They show that actual preferences are consistent with generational stereotypes but not nearly as great as the stereotypes would lead one to believe.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

Among the biggest challenges in a multigenerational workforce are perceptions that impede communication and positive interaction. As we saw previously, none of the generations were impressed with the others’ ability to listen carefully. Also, each cohort rated the others fairly low in asking for help when needed. Millennials and Boomers both rated one another much lower on this behavior than they rated themselves. Very likely, when survey participants answered these questions, they did not think to themselves that “there is another group I could be getting help from—members of another generation that I don’t normally interact with.” Similarly, Millennials might not observe Boomers asking other Boomers for technical help, and Boomers might not witness Millennials asking each other for help in understanding organizational procedure. The lesson here is that workers need to be made more comfortable initiating informal communication across generational boundaries.

Most of us tend to think we’re doing a better job than we in fact are. We tend to overlook evidence that does not support our perceptions. And we tend not to realize when our understanding of a situation is different from how others see it. This is especially difficult when those different understandings are based on different values and different assumptions about how the world works.

We see an opportunity to create a much more fulfilling environment by bridging these communication gaps. Empowered with this understanding and given the characteristics of Millennial managers summarized from our survey in the next chapter, we believe you will be an outstanding leader.

Endnotes

1. Tulgan, B. (1995). Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent. Santa Monica, CA: Merritt Publishing.

2. Perry, E. L., Hanvongse, P., & Casoinic, D. A. (2013). Making a case for the existence of generational stereotypes: A literature review and exploratory study. In Field, J., Burke, R. J., & Cooper, C. L. (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of aging, work and society. London: Sage.

3. Conference Board of Canada. (2009). Winning the “Generation Wars”: Making the most of generational differences and similarities in the workplace. https://www.aqesss.qc.ca/docs/pdf/i-media/20091126/ConferenceBoard_Compete_Generation_Wars.pdf.

4. Conference Board of Canada. (2009). Winning the “Generation Wars”: Making the most of generational differences and similarities in the workplace. https://www.aqesss.qc.ca/docs/pdf/i-media/20091126/ConferenceBoard_Compete_Generation_Wars.pdf.

5. Conference Board of Canada. (2009). Winning the “Generation Wars”: Making the most of generational differences and similarities in the workplace. https://www.aqesss.qc.ca/docs/pdf/i-media/20091126/ConferenceBoard_Compete_Generation_Wars.pdf.

6. Conference Board of Canada. (2009). Winning the “Generation Wars”: Making the most of generational differences and similarities in the workplace. https://www.aqesss.qc.ca/docs/pdf/i-media/20091126/ConferenceBoard_Compete_Generation_Wars.pdf.

7. Meriac, J. P., Woehr, D. J., & Banister, C. (2010). Generational differences in work ethic: An examination of measurement equivalence across three cohorts. Journal of Business Psychology, 25, 315–324.

8. Lester, S. W., et al. (2012) Actual versus perceived differences at work: An empirical examination. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19(3), 341–354.

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