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Leading Across the Generations by Barbara Liebermeister, Founder and Managing Director of the IFIDZ, Germany

Author:, June 7, 2020/Categories: Blogs

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With an increasing number of generations working together in organizations, it has become important for leaders to adapt their leadership styles to be able to build trust and communicate with employees in the best possible way to boost understanding, motivation and results.

For example, with people preferring to work more years and retiring much later in life, the age of the workforce of a company can sometimes span up to 50 years. As a result, five generations may need to collaborate within one organization.

So how does one lead effectively across generations?

As per sociologist’s definitions, there are the traditionalists (born before 1950) who are more or less at the helm of affairs in most organizations, whilst the older of the baby boomers (born 1951 to 1964), have already reached or are close to the retirement age.

Then there’s Generation X (1965 to 1980), who is handling medium to senior executive roles, and Generation Y (1981 to 2000), whose members have already worked their way up into established top performer positions. And, last but not the least, Generation Z (from 2001), which is often found in apprenticeship and training roles.

This increasing age gap not only leads to friction due to differing life situations and quantum of experience but it also has a significant impact on leadership. This is because each generation has their own preferred way of being led. The old pecking order of “The boss is older than his staff“ no longer applies. Today, leaders face the challenge of having to lead not only much younger, but also older members of staff. This makes leadership even more challenging as there are not just age-related differences in what each individual needs, but also in the way they approach their tasks and respond.

And adding to this mix is the complexity of Digital Natives versus Digital Immigrants.
Digital Natives are those young employees born after 1990 and have grown up with digital technologies. Leaders often find it challenging to lead this group with each individual just doing his or her own thing.

On the other side, there are the so-called Digital Immigrants who are born before 1990, which is much before the computers and smartphone launched the victory march of digital technologies. This group had to learn the ropes of these technologies at an adult age  and therefore they are often still insecure or even anxious while dealing with technology.

It is often suggested that Digital Natives, in contrast to Digital Immigrants, put much greater emphasis on self-fulfilment than on developing their career. This might apply to some Digital Natives – but maybe, these are simply younger than their colleagues and hence don’t (yet) feel the pressure of having to provide for a family.

But no matter which generation or what level of technology know-how is involved, to overcome the challenges that stem from different ways of thinking and working, everybody involved needs to display a willingness for mutual understanding. This understanding needs to be promoted. An organization should focus on providing opportunities for the employees to get to know each other better across generations – for example through something as simple as a department wise coffee meet.

If there’s mutual understanding, the strengths attributed to the individual “generations” can be leveraged in a targeted manner. Doing so will help in building trust and opening the communication channels, helping performance and results rise.

For example the technical know-how of generation Y, the desire to make a difference of generation X, and the serenity resulting from the experience of the baby boomers, can all compliment each other and propel an organization towards success.

Thus the diversity in age will transform into a benefit for the company, and for every individual employee.


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