Leaders in government around the country are facing the same challenge: leading a workforce composed of generations of people whose experience ranges from remembering the aftermath of World War II to not remembering a time when email didn’t exist. While some of the differences among the generations may be overblown, many are real—including the way we dress, the way we consume information, the music we listen to and beliefs about acceptable personal behavior.
There are also real differences among the generations with regard to their career stage. While baby boomers, ages 51–68, are in the later stages of their careers; Gen Xers, 34–50, are mid-career; and millennials, 14–33, are early in their careers.
Along with these other differences, conventional wisdom suggests baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials have radically different expectations of leaders. As more millennials enter the workplace and more baby boomers retire, many leaders are anticipating having to substantially change their behavior to be able to lead millennials. But do boomers, Gen Xers and millennials actually have substantially different ideas about what makes a leader effective?
The research we have conducted at the Center for Creative Leadership suggests the answer to that question is no. Our evidence suggests there is enough overlap in what boomers, Xers and millennials want in a leader to make it possible to effectively lead all generations at the same time.
Fundamentally, people of all generations believe effective leaders:
Act in a collaborative and inclusive way (participative);
Show enthusiasm, are inspiring, motivate others (charismatic);
Help teams deal with conflict, work together and develop cohesion (team-oriented); and
Help others, are generous and compassionate (humane-oriented).
So, what should leaders do to be participative, charismatic, team-oriented and humane-oriented for boomers, Gen Xers and millennials all at the same time? While millennials, Xers and boomers may have different clothing and music preferences, they all believe that consideration for others is fundamental for good leadership.
Leaders are perceived as being considerate when they respect and invite others’ opinions (are participative), help teams work more effectively with one another (are team-oriented), inspire and excite others to do their best work (are charismatic), and show compassion toward others at work (are humane). In general, a good way for leaders to live up to these expectations is to demonstrate that they see value in others. While everyone has their own individual way to do this, our research shows that leaders should work toward being more participative, team-oriented, charismatic and humane.
While creating programs to address generational differences in the workplace is popular, they aren’t entirely necessary. Rather than spending time, energy and funds on creating rubrics for leading boomers, Gen Xers and millennials differently, leaders in government should instead focus on helping staff learn how to be more participative, charismatic, team-oriented and humane-oriented, which will appeal to employees of all generations—and help drive organizational results that will make everyone proud.