How to manage multigenerational teams

Team cohesiveness is essential to successful projects. Having a team that functions, communicates and works as one, with shared goals and visions, is a priceless asset in project management. However, achieving team unity can be a tricky task for project managers (P.M.s). Besides having to manage disparate personalities and even direct reports who work remotely, P.M.s also have to deal with generational differences in the workforce. Finding ways to get employees of differing ages, eras and social cultures to cooperate on projects can be one of the most pressing challenges P.M.s face today.

A sea change has occurred in the American office. According to Pew Research Center, millennials became the most represented generation of the workforce in 2015, supplanting Gen Xers as well as baby boomers. What’s more is that Generation Z is not far behind, already interning in college or getting starts on a professional career as baby boomers steadily retire in great numbers. The shifts have caused anxiety amid and separation between the generational classes. Myths have multiplied (like those concerning millennials and their supposed lack of drive in life) and can cause problems for P.M.s if allowed to perpetuate inside the team, derailing projects that depend on collaboration and interprofessional relationships.

Here’s more information on what the real attitude gaps are between generations, as well as some advice on what P.M.s can do to bridge divides to ensure the team, the project and the company succeed.

Communication differences define generational divides

Some of the contentiousness seen between generations is a byproduct of a more benign condition: lack of effective communication. When a 2017 Robert Half survey asked CFOs “In which one of the following areas do you see the greatest differences among your company’s employees who are from different generations?” , 30 percent cited communication skills, the largest share.

Researchers noted baby boomers were more reserved; Gen Xers liked to take control of situations and issue commands; millennials were more interested in collaboration; and Generation Z cohorts were more partial to in-person interactions (this despite the stereotype that younger generations are only interested in social media accounts).

Other areas the respondents highlighted as demonstrative of generational differences included:

  • Adapting to change (26 percent).
  • Technical skills (23 percent).
  • Cross-departmental collaboration (14 percent).

Just 7 percent said they saw no differences. Looking at these areas gives P.M.s a game plan for how to approach multigenerational teams and get everybody working on the same page. This ability will in large part hinge on addressing the unique needs of each generation and leveraging the specialized skills, mindsets and behaviors each possesses.

“Each generation brings unique characteristics to the workforce, which should be embraced,” said Tim Hird, executive director of Robert Half Management Resources. “Too often, managers see these differences as negatives, but building a team with diverse perspectives, insights and strengths can only be a positive, leading to improved products and service levels.”

Ensure proper training for all employees

One of the most evident generational differences for teams is in how workers use technology. Millennials and Generation Z members grew up in the years where transformative breakthroughs (smartphones, apps, crowdfunding) became the normal way of life, and were not seemingly disruptions to the natural order of things as for some of the older generations. Still, many in those same groups are just as interested in and knowledgeable on technology: There are baby boomers who work remotely and use videoconferencing every day.

Whenever companies implement new software (whether task management or workflow optimization or automation) they need to ensure their training programs are designed to engage workers of all generations. As Robert Half noted, Gen Xers and baby boomers prefer instructor-led training — whereas Generations Y and Z are more comfortable with collaborative approaches to learning. P.M.s will need to find a balance that caters to each generation, like one that might be situated in a traditional environment, but which contains self-led or group modules.

Leverage diversity and talent

Although it helps to understand the trends and patterns of overarching generations, doing so can bog P.M.s down in static understandings of the workforce. Project success, after all, depends greatly on the people involved and their talents, not  whether they adhere to their generations’ tendencies. Putting together individuals who complement one another’s styles, thinking and skills helps P.M.s build effective teams regardless of how the generations fit together.

Having disparate perspectives and experiences can create a well-rounded team. Even if one person is slightly deficient in one discipline, another worker can help them gain a better understanding or appreciation of the skill. The important thing for P.M.s to remember is that while generational differences can help guide talent decisions, it is ultimately the person him or herself that matters most.

Learn more about project management at Brandeis University

Managing teams of people of different generations can be as much a challenge as it is an opportunity for P.M.s. Having the management skills to guide Gen Xers and Gen Zers, as well as get baby boomers and millennials to productively work together, is no easy task, but it’s not an impossible one. The more P.M.s understand about the intricacies of generational differences and how they affect the workforce, the better they can set their projects up for success. Those interested in pursuing more education as a means to better manage reports of different generations may want to learn more about Brandeis University’s online Master of Science in Project and Program Management program.


Recommended reading:

Top 5 myths of project management

Tips for building strong teams in the workplace

Virtual team management best practices

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