Leading Different Generations: The Bottom-up Method

Guest post: Luciana Paulise

Learning how to manage different generations at work has become one of the biggest concerns for today’s leaders.


Today’s workforce includes so many generations already. The baby boomers (1945-1963), Generation Xers (1963-1980), Millennials (1981-1995), and we are now also hiring generation z (born after 1995). Every generation has different values, different ways of communicating and different ways of feeling motivated. That is observed in Gen Xers complaining that millennials are not committed, millennials complain that Gen Xers and not passionate and work too hard, Baby boomers want to call Gen Z on the phone and gen Z want to reply sending a picture. The problem is that different generations have essentially different working habits, which make it difficult to sustain a culture (a common set of habits) across the organization in regards to customer service, safety or continuous improvement. This disconnection impacts the organization with high rates of absenteeism, frustration, lack of effective communication, lack of long-term commitment. More importantly, a lot of expert knowledge is being lost.

“One-third of the employees are what Gallup calls engaged at work. They love their jobs and make their organization and America better every day. At the other end, 16% of employees are actively disengaged — they are miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build. The remaining 51% of employees are not engaged — they’re just there. These figures indicate an American leadership philosophy that simply doesn’t work anymore.” The 2017-2018 Gallup State of the American Workplace report.

What has worked for us is then to work on a cultural change, what I call the Bottom-Up method. The bottom-up method consists of empowering employees at all levels to get involved in organizational continuous change. It includes learning certain habits to add to their daily routines that will help them all contributing more to the corporate objectives as well as to their own objectives. From a company-wide perspective, these 5 steps will help you develop your own strategy: acknowledgment of the differences, challenges and opportunities, training, defining clear roles and responsibilities, measurement, verification and validation and constant two-way communication.

1)  Acknowledge the gap

As a first step, we always urge companies to acknowledge the difference. Generational differences do exist and will continue existing till the end of times. We cannot afford to act like this is not happening, every employee needs to be aware of these differences and understand how, no matter what, they can still all work together as a team.  So, define a set of values that are important for the organization, that you don’t want to lose and that must be the same across generations and geographic areas. Zappos, for example, built the company principles based on their employee’s input.

Learn more about Zappos: Instill a culture of happiness and quality will follow.

2) Train

Train employees and leaders with new “we” habits and routines that will help them keep these values top of mind. This what I call the sharing culture. For example, establishing daily 5 minutes meetings to share ideas, communicating instantly when something is wrong, celebrating success in monthly events, sharing the company values and purpose consistently, and keeping a manual or checklists about their own work. This is crucial for a bottom-up method. Employees need to be empowered to propose ideas, or to speak up when there is a mistake. Leaders on the other side need also to be trained to respect the values but at the same time be able to listen to employees and share the leadership (delegate) when needed. Companies nowadays hire lots of contractors, so training them or any suppliers is also part of making sure everyone is aligned. These habits need to be so ingrained that they are also applied at home. This way, if they work virtually they are still able to commit to the organizational habits.

 3) Define clear roles and responsibilities

The leadership team is the one to define the set of values, HR department may be the one to share those, supervisors in every section are in charge of holding daily meetings. There should be a corporate-wide system to showcase ideas for improvement, and it should followed-up by the plan manager (just a suggestion). No matter the generation, every employee needs to understand what is expected from them. Probably Millennials and Z are going to ask more question about it, or will ask for more freedom in the How, so boundaries and purpose of each role need to be really clear.

4) Measure performance

The key here, is measuring to learn, not measuring to find who to blame. Individual measures, or simply defining a person based on his KPI’s is easy, but is very tricky. Lots of companies still rank personnel or measure sales individually, which only helps to increasing competition and eroding collaboration habits. While these models worked for Generation X, now they don’t motivate new generations like millennials or Z.

5) Verify and validate

Make sure these habits are being implemented. Companies in the petrochemical industry for example apply behavior-based safety programs to ensure safety. Leaders must visit the field to observe, verify and validate employees behaviors. Other companies apply weekly walkarounds or monthly external audits. What matters the most is the verification and validation is done onsite, next to the employee. It gives him the chance to explain his point of view and propose an action plan If necessary. A top-down direction very much preferred by baby boomers, is not as welcome for younger generations, who want to be part of decision making.

 6) Communicate 2-way

Internal communication as well as external communication, to clients, suppliers or even the community is essential to the bottom-up approach. As different generations communicate differently, communication methods need also to be diverse. You may need to use social media for millennials, apps with images and pictures to Z, manuals and internal newsletters to Gen X, a phone call for baby boomers, and face to face communication for everyone as much as possible. Gossip and informal communication is more and more powerful, keeping secrets no longer safe. Generation Z was born in the wiki-leaks era! The more every decision and result is communicated not necessarily formally, but intentionally, the better. That’s why I share month end results with my team, as well as potential clients and customer feedback. This way I make sure we are all in the same boat. 2-way communication includes not only to communicate, but also to listen for feedback, remember.

Sometimes you may not like what you hear, but you still can do something about it. No matter how much your workforce or even your clients change over time, if the good habits prevail, the organization will keep adapting as well. Companies need to develop strategies to help different generations to learn to get along well while working together. Don’t wait till the water is hot!

Lu Paulise: Owner Biztorming Training & Consulting

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2 thoughts on “Leading Different Generations: The Bottom-up Method”

  1. Wow, you’re right! Working in a tech start-up (with 100% millennials on board), I wasn’t aware of the fact that other companies have to deal with moral values of 4 (!) different generations. Thanks for raising awareness around this topic!

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