Cultures That Work For All Generations

Written by Jamie Notter on April 11, 2016

One of the truths about generations that doesn’t get much attention is the basic, demographic fact that organizations always have been—and always will be—made up of multiple generations. I mean, even in the small-staff associations, you’d be hard pressed to find an organization without at least two generations represented, and as soon as you become sizable at all, you’ll consistently find three, and in some cases four (the Silent Generation has shrunk to less than 1% of our workforce, but they’re still there!).

So as much as we freak out every twenty years when a new generation hits the workforce, it’s not like we haven’t been dealing with generational differences all along. The truth is, this issue (managing generational diversity) may shift and evolve over the years, but it will never go away.

So how do you build a culture that works across multiple generations? Well there are several internal capacities that will help. Conflict resolution, for example, is a big one. If you can build a culture where conflicts are raised quickly and worked through with relative ease, then you are more likely to create a system where multiple generations can coexist more effectively. In fact that issue of inclusion—valuing differences—is another organizational capacity that obviously helps here.

But beyond the individual internal capacities, there’s a bigger issue here.

One thing you must realize about generational differences is that they tend to feel invisible to the individuals inside your organization.

In other words, my perspective as a Gen X manager is very rarely consciously “Gen X” in my mind. I’m just approaching management the way I think it “makes sense” to manage; I don’t see that my approach has a Gen X bias. It’s sort of the like fish that doesn’t know it’s swimming in water because the water is ALWAYS there.

So each generation in your multi-generational workforce is doing things in a way that “makes sense” to them, and frequently lamenting the fact that other groups are doing things in ways that don’t “make sense.” But what about what “makes sense” for the organization as a whole? This is the bigger issue. The generational interpretations of what “makes sense” are flourishing mostly because the organization has never become truly clear on how it needs to operate to be most successful in its environment.

So your Gen X managers want everyone to be left alone to get things done, and your Boomer managers want everything done in teams (yes, an intentional over-generalization, but bear with me). So which is it for YOUR association? What needs to be valued more—collaboration or autonomy? They’re both important, of course, but which matters more to YOU, in your environment, and your context.

Most associations, I would argue, can’t answer that question, and that’s why the generational bickering persists. You need to understand the basic genetic building blocks of your organization’s DNA, and then you need to evaluate whether that basic truth about your culture is aligned with what drives your success.

Once you get that alignment, then I won’t be able to complain that my generation-biased approach isn’t being adopted. I will already know what this culture stands for, and why, so I will learn to adapt my approach (or go find another job). People willingly work outside their generational style when they understand that it will drive success. So get clear on the culture/success alignment piece first if you want a culture that works for everyone.