How to adapt your leadership to a multigenerational workplace

Written by: Sarah Drinkwater
Published on: 8 Nov 2021

diverse businesspeople in the meeting
Photo credit: zorani/iStockphoto

The writer is a former Google executive and an angel investor

Recently, I announced I was leaving my job and taking some time out. After posting the obligatory LinkedIn update, I noticed something curious in the responses. I am 41 and while younger friends congratulated me for putting myself first, older peers were sorry to hear the news.

Generational differences are often missed in discussions about diversity and building resilient working cultures. But attitudes about work vary according to when people grew up. The challenge for leaders is to adapt their style to meet the needs of Gen Z employees who expect more from both their jobs and those who hire them.

“The times shape our identity, and the expectations we have of our employers and our careers,” says Abadesi Osunsade, vice-president of global community and belonging at consumer intelligence company Brandwatch. In most industries, for example, jobs for life are a thing of the past: as people work for longer, they will have multiple careers and need to refresh their skills as sectors and roles evolve.

Abadesi Osunsade
Abadesi Osunsade of Brandwatch: ‘The times shape our identity, and the expectations we have of our employers and our careers’

Even the technology industry is facing generational challenges. Tech has historically been dominated by young talent and set trends for new approaches to working lives, including remote work. But the world wide web is more than 30 years old. There is senior talent with decades of experience and leaders who left school in the 2010s: both will probably have team members who are older and younger than them.

Work-life balance is one area where generational expectations tend to be mismatched. Many of today’s older leaders began their careers at a time when progression into management came with long hours and frequent travel. But research suggests that younger employees are less willing to accept that trade-off. Indeed, 38 per cent of Gen Z employees consider work-life balance the most critical factor in choosing an employer.

Younger workers are also asking more about organisational values. It would have been unusual a decade ago for an interviewee to ask a prospective employer about their diversity, equity and inclusion policies, but it is very much typical now.

“Gen Z are holding leaders to higher standards than ever when it comes to transparency, social and environmental impact and their own progression,” says Alex Stephany, chief executive of Beam, a start-up that supports homeless people.

Remote work during the pandemic highlighted different generational expectations around careers. While some professionals balanced meetings with home-schooling, those in shared accommodation battled for space, while others had more time on their hands. This uneven experience, which broadly fell on generational lines, contributed to the miscommunication, tension and burnout seen in some workplaces.

As we head towards 2022, the focus on staff wellbeing and retention across all generations is growing even more important. Workers are questioning their choices, leading to a trend that some are calling the Great Resignation. Furthermore, with an estimated 953,000 jobs advertised in the UK between May and July this year, a record high, creating work cultures that suit all generations is high on leaders’ agendas.

So, how should today’s leaders respond to generational differences?

Listening to - and understanding - a team’s motivations and challenges are essential skills. “Acknowledge the reality of stress and pressure in today’s workplace,” advises Connor Swenson, a resilience and productivity consultant.

Technology can help leaders keep an eye on what trends might affect workers. “Platforms like Culture Amp make it easy for managers to do a pulse check on issues that have an impact on employees — everything from cultural events unfolding in the news to personal issues like mental health — to understand what employees need to feel safe,” Osunsade says.

Proactive measures to help employees build resilience and manage their mental wellbeing are also important. “Having a meditation class is not enough,” Swenson explains. “You need to equip your teams with the mental and emotional skills to handle adversity: the shift from preventive training to capacity-building is important.”

Transparent and honest communication is another focus, with younger employees keen to have more clarity on the expectations and parameters of their jobs. More than half (60 per cent) of Gen Z employees want to meet their manager at least every week — or even daily — research shows.

Sarah Drinkwater
Sarah Drinkwater: ‘Generational differences are often missed in discussions about diversity’ © Alexandra Cameron

Leaders who are both available and authentic are also important. “Become a leader that practises vulnerability,” Osunsade advises. “Show that you don’t have all the answers but that you are committed to improving work culture for your employees.”

Stephany agrees, noting that “leaders need to be more accessible, openly talking about failure and showing vulnerability at work”.

Above all, however, grasping that culture cannot be created from the top down, but must be built by and with workers of all ages and types, is essential. This can be done through open consultation, employee-led groups or other mechanisms designed to create space to learn together.

Brandwatch runs regular “sofa sessions,” says Osunsade. These are a “great leveller because everyone from the C-suite downwards chimes in to share their experiences of issues like burnout and microaggressions.”

Some question whether there is a difference between generations, or whether the challenge is more about identity, privilege and whose voices are listened to. “What Gen Z expects at work feels like familiar versions of what people of colour were saying back in the 90s,” says Anil Dash, chief executive of coding and collaboration platform Glitch. “We just had to be quiet.”

Ultimately, the transparency, ownership and balance that younger employees seek, or even demand, benefit all workers. “Broadly, we all want an environment of trust, honesty, co-operation, and to feel that we are making a difference,” says Swenson.