By Dan Gephart, November 13, 2023
I used to be skeptical when people talked about generational differences in the workplace. I thought it was an over-generalization. I’ve since gained an appreciation for the data and how it can improve everything from performance feedback to workplace logistics.
The American workplace is going through a generational shift. Millennials (born 1980-1994) are now the largest generational workgroup, followed closely by Gen X (1965-1979) and Baby Boomers (1946-1964). In the Federal workplace, Gen X still holds an edge, but the percentage of Millennials continues to grow. Understanding the differences between these groups is as important as ever.
Oh, and look out: Gen Z (1995-2009) is expected to make up more than a quarter of the overall workplace within two years.
But that’s not all. An understanding of generational differences is important to address the following workplace situations.
- Remember that “OK, Boomer” slam? Do you still joke about everybody-gets-a-trophy Millennials? Luckily, the rancor of a few years ago has died down. Unfortunately, a lot of inter-generational mistrust continues to exist in the workplace.
- Major workplace change (offices to cubicles, cubicles to open spaces, open spaces to remote work) has often been mired in generational conflict. Understanding generational needs will help your agency in its current transition to a permanent hybrid workforce.
- The Biden Administration continues to stress DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility). Age and experience are key diversity factors.
- And, finally, there’s the performance As a group, Federal supervisors have gotten better at performance feedback. But too many supervisors still struggle.
There is no one way to provide employee feedback. It depends on the relationship between the employee and the rater, according to FELTG Instructor Susan Schneider. [Editor’s note: Susan presents Successfully Leading a Multi-generational Team on March 12. Register now.] She offered this overview:
- “Generally, Gen Zs prefer feedback delivered in a variety of ways,” Susan said. “Gen Zs, like Boomers, prefer direct and actionable feedback. Ideally, the feedback is tailored to their individual needs.”
- Millennials prefer timely, specific, continuous feedback given in a collaborative and supportive way.
- Gen Xers prefer regular direct and honest feedback. “For both Gen Xers and Gen Zs, keeping their individual needs and goals in mind is the best approach,” she said.
- Boomers are geared to formal feedback sessions like most Federal organizations’ annual or half-yearly sessions. Specific and actionable feedback is ideal.
Those differences are well-researched, with the general conclusion that Millennials need “frequent, VERY frequent, feedback.” Should supervisors really consider a person’s generation before sharing feedback?
“Perhaps, as a start,” Susan said. “Management starts with communication. Well, management IS communication. So, yes, communicate differently if personally and organizationally possible.”
Susan has taken a particular interest in the fast-growing Gen Z.
“Gen Zs flourish in diverse workplaces,” she said. “They are practical, and, of course, digitally fluent. Gen Zs want a culturally competent manager, stability, competitive wages, and mentorship. Their communication style is face-to-face and video chats with friends.
“When I think about our Gen Zs onboarding during COVID, I’m concerned. How can their co-workers, including managers, provide (or simulate) face-to-face communication? I have anecdotal evidence; a mentor/protégée pair told me they met in person outside during COVID.”
Back to my original skepticism of the topic. I asked Susan how she’d respond to someone saying generational differences are over-generalizations or worse stereotypes.
“Generation is one way to understand peoples’ life experiences and what makes each of us who we are,” Susan told me. “Aspects of a person, such as life stage (such as becoming a parent) or military service, first-generation college, living abroad, first language learned, or where we grew up are all within us. Learn about people and accept that human beings are formed by many influences. Respect personal boundaries, and don’t accept your first impression as fact.”
“Diversity of thought is a huge asset for an organization.” Gephart@FELTG.com