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Clash of generations in the workplace

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It was Pierre Diallo’s first visit to the company’s head office in Lagos. He had flown into Lagos, along with his country manager, to attend a meeting. Pierre’s colleagues had requested that he took a ‘selfie’ with the Group CEO to prove that he actually visited the firm’s head office.

And so after the meeting, Pierre sneaked in to see the big boss of the multinational company. He introduced himself to the female secretary, who gave him a disapproving look. She had every reason to be jolted by the appearance of the young man. Pierre was wearing jeans, hoodie and a pair of sneakers—not a typical corporate outfit.

She asked if he was on appointment. Before Pierre could respond, the CEO breezed into the office. Pierre instantly recognised him from the company’s e-newsletters. He darted towards the CEO before the flustered secretary could stop him.

“Hi, I am Pierre Diallo from the Abidjan office. Can I take a selfie with you?”

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This humorous narrative aptly illustrates the diversity that exists in today’s workplace and the frictions that often arise over failure to establish common meaning between the older generation and millennials like Pierre.

Diversity, which has different facets such as culture, language and age, can cause tension in organisations if it is not properly managed. Here, you have Pierre, who is 26 years old and from a Francophone country, which has a different language and culture; interacting with an English-speaking female secretary, probably in her fifties.

Pierre’s generation have an approach to work that is different from the secretary’s generation. Millennials tend to be more ambitious, lackadaisical, and impulsive. That is the reason the matronly secretary must have frowned at Pierre’s perceived imprudence. Her generation believe the younger generation lack a strong work ethic. On the other hand, millennials cannot seem to understand why they are called names. This clash of the generations is making organisations pay closer attention to millennials.

Managing generational differences in the workplace can pose a challenge to firms that may have up to five generations of employees. Although there seems to be no consensus on when these generations begin and end, the following five groups are generally identified:

The Traditional School (1925 to 1945): This is the traditional ‘radio’ generation. Most members of this generation are retired pensioners, while a few are still working.

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Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964): This generation, which currently sit atop the board and management of companies, derived their tag from the population explosion that followed the end of the Second World War in 1945. The older ones have retired, while those in the fifties and sixties bracket, are still in active service.

Generation X (1965 to 1980): This is the generation that is set to take over from the Baby Boomers.

Generation Y (1981 to 1995): Famously referred to as ‘millennials,’ this generation, which Pierre belongs to, are reputed for their technological know-how. They are much at home with their mobile devices which they use to surf the net even while at work. You often find them listening to music from a headphone plugged to their laptops in their workstations. The older generations view them as a bunch of unserious people.

Generation Z (after 1996): Also called Generation I (for Internet) or the Net Generation, they are the generation born after the advent of the World Wide Web. They will be more tech savvy than Generation Y cohort because they are exposed to the net early in life.

Apart from these five generational cohorts, there is a new generation known as Generation Alpha. People born from 2010 on wards belong to this generation, also referred to as ‘Glass Generation.’

In the next few years, Baby Boomer bosses will be preparing for retirement, paving the way for Generation Xers to succeed them. It certainly would be interesting to know how the workplace would look like when it eventually gets to the turn of Generation Y and Generation Z managers to head establishments across the world.

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Before then, it may be expedient for organisations to start grooming millennials and those after them, into leadership roles. Mentoring is one of the vehicles that can be used to drive this process. Mentoring, which typically involves knowledge transfer from a senior mentor to a junior mentee, has several benefits. It can help the mentees to acquire new competencies, enrich their knowledge base, and enhance their professional profile, thus equipping them to become future-ready leaders.

The Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN) is currently running a mentoring scheme to build the capacity of young professionals in the conservative banking industry. The CEOs, who are leading the charge, have enlisted over 600 mentors and mentees in the project.

Apart from the traditional mentoring model, reverse mentoring is another strategy that some other organizations have found useful in bridging the generational gap between the leadership team and millennials.

As the term implies, reverse mentoring entails a younger person mentoring an older colleague in the office. For instance, the younger generation, who are ‘digital natives,’ can mentor senior execs that are perceived to be ‘digital dinosaurs,’on new media applications that can augment their technical capabilities. This inverse mentor-mentee relationship may help in building inclusion.

Also, some companies organise fireside chats, as opposed to town halls—which are typically more formal with larger audiences—to build closer rapport between the CEO and staff, especially millennials.

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Organisations can equally explore social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) and new internal communication channels (Yammer and Microsoft Teams)—beyond traditional channels such as the email and periodic newsletters—to connect with millennials that are denizens of the digital world. Millennials thrive best in an environment that engages them.

Organisations that know how to manage generational diversity will reap the benefits. However, this requires some creativity and patience, because in the words of R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr, “creating and managing a diverse workforce, is a process, not a destination.”

Dr. Mordi is a corporate communications and government affairs practitioner, based in Lagos.

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