Managing a Multigenerational Workforce

by Teresa Whitacre

Those who manage staff know how difficult it can be. People bring their different personalities to a group, along with varied personal, educational and professional backgrounds.

My current role as a quality assurance supervisor is no exception. My staff is diverse—more males than females, with education ranging from high school diplomas to MBAs and ages ranging from the 20s to 50s. Such differing backgrounds pose many challenges—communication, work methods or just ways of getting things accomplished.

When I took over the group 18 months ago, I had a rocky start. Difficulties occurred occasionally as we expanded. We had trials, growing pains and successes, but these experiences enabled us to learn. We improved, particularly in understanding generational differences.

Clashing Generations

In the workplace, generational clashes are occurring more than ever before. Studies done by companies such as Ernst & Young show that younger workers have a strong need for immediate feedback. Those just graduating from college also need or want the added challenge of managing work groups.

On the other hand, workers in their 30s to 50s often demand greater flexibility and a better work-life balance.1

But, there are commonalities. Studies in organizational and human behaviors have shown that most people look for the following in their work environments:

  • Challenging or rewarding work.
  • Stability, even if for a shorter term than lifetime employment.
  • Nonthreatening environments.
  • Fair compensation—often something managers can’t control.

However, different generations rank these differently. Workers in their 20s tend to rate compensation higher, while workers in their 50s tend to prioritize stability and interesting work.

How do managers get diverse work groups with varying goals to play on the same playing field?

Cans vs. Cannots

Whenever my staff and I are faced with an obstacle, problem or something to accomplish that seems impossible, we get together and discuss all possible options. I start the discussion with, “Don’t tell me what we can’t do. Tell me what we can do.” This group, as with most groups, responds well to the positive side of our challenges, and everyone contributes to proactive discussions.

Rather than hearing, “We cannot do that because we always did it this way,” the group now starts out with, “Would trying this help us get the benefit that we hope for?”

Seeing the benefit and comparing it to the obstacles reaches the more experienced worker easier than it does the less experienced staff members with much less history to draw upon. These employees can’t fall back on previous experiences. The latter employees need to be told specifically how a certain method will benefit the whole group or make the process more efficient by requiring fewer steps or reducing the overall workload.

Focus on the Positive

Before presenting any complex situation to the group, I try to be aware of all potential objections and obstacles. Having the group focus on the benefits versus the obstacles has allowed us to accomplish more than we would have otherwise. Generational differences are much easier to remove when everyone is working toward a common goal.

Communicate Differently

The differences between generations also need to be considered when managers need to engage workers. Speak their language. Learn what motivates the members of the group.

Talking about how implementing a solution will help long-term job security is not a good way to get through to the younger workers who are motivated by immediate results. Instead, figure out what gets them engaged in work.

Learn what they like to do in their off hours. Use the conversational styles that reach each generation and personality.

Managing a multigenerational workforce was daunting at first. The techniques I described were initially challenging to use. However, using them has been an enjoyable process, and they’ve led to successes.


1. Eric J. McNulty, “It’s Time to Rethink What You Think You Know About Managing People,” Harvard Management Update, Vol. 11, No. 2, http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/5297.html.

TERESA WHITACRE is a quality assurance supervisor with Respironics Inc., a respiratory device manufacturer and distributor in Youngwood, PA. She is a senior member of ASQ and a certified Six Sigma Green Belt, quality manager, technician, auditor and engineer. Whitacre authored a quality technology text used by the ASQ Pittsburgh Section for certified mechanical inspector and certified quality technician courses and has instructed training courses for both.

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