Six tips for managing multi-generational teams

Many in-house teams will have members of all ages, with differing needs and expectations. How do you tailor your management style to everyone? Elizabeth Warhurst explains her approach

a younger man with dark hair and an older woman with light blonde/silver hair are having a conversation. Both are dressed smartly and sit in a meeting room.

Baby boomers, Generation X, xennials, millennials, Generation Z, Generation Alpha – we have probably heard of some of these categories and may have been told that we need to consider our employee or team profile against them and tailor our management styles accordingly.

I will admit that I had to remind myself what some of these meant when I was asked to write this article, and there is no doubt that understanding the potential priorities, preferences and motivating factors for each group is helpful. 

However, it’s not the whole story. To quote Agatha Christie: “I often wonder why the whole world is prone to generalise. Generalisations are seldom if ever true and are usually inaccurate.”

And, in the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “I am fearful, or suspicious, of generalisations. They cannot guide me reliably in making decisions about individuals.”

Rather than understanding my team as multi-generational and relying on these – or other – generalisations to guide my leadership style, I prefer to see myself as managing a multi-individual team.

The bedrock of my leadership approach is knowing that everyone has their story; that everyone has something going on for them that might influence their approach to their working life, priorities, aspirations and interests, and that those factors can change over time. 

I don’t believe that people are defined by their age or generation, by the job that they do or any other factor. It could never be so straightforward – thank goodness!

There may be differences in how people approach their careers – social or environmental influences which shape how individuals operate and their expectations of the world. But I believe that there are some themes which are common to us all which I use to underpin an interest in individuality.

1. Flexibility and trust / clarity on boundaries

As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, my organisation, like many others, is examining its future operating model. We won’t be returning to the office to work as we did before, and most staff will follow a hybrid model of part-home, part-office working. We will be encouraging and facilitating greater flexibility, and focusing more on outcomes than counting hours worked. 

We will develop a principles-based approach which focuses on the customer, whether they be external or internal, and increasingly we are empowering our middle and senior leaders to resolve issues at source.

We have learned over the last 12 months that we can work in this way and achieve great things, and some of our fears around trust and remote working have been largely unfounded. 

2. Quality of work

In my experience, whatever the role, individuals want to feel that they are doing good-quality work which contributes to the betterment of the team, the organisation or the customer.

It is important to recognise that contribution and value is not determined by a job title, length of service or hierarchy. It is about the skills, experience and knowledge that individuals can bring. 

I believe that we all have a role to play and I appreciate working with talented and committed individuals. I don’t fear talent or ambition. I encourage my teams and create opportunities for them to thrive, develop and move on to exciting new roles if that’s right for them. I believe that it’s in the best interests of everyone to have amazing individuals in the local government community, which is a surprisingly small world.

3. Building and encouraging relationships

Linked to quality of work is building and encouraging relationships within teams, both across the organisation and externally. 

I encourage shared learning and collaboration, which is often outside an individual’s area of work. I have supported external and internal secondments, membership of outside bodies, and inter-authority project work.

As a senior leader, I don’t believe that I should have all the answers or that I need to ‘front’ every piece of work. Individuals should be able to take credit for their ideas and work. It is possible to empower individuals to step forward and for me to still provide support and ‘take the rap’ if need be.

4. Feedback, communication and engagement

Of course, we all need to think about these things as leaders. But it’s important to have open, reflective conversations with your team and listen to their views and advice; to try to tailor opportunities for discussion around the needs and preferences of the individual, whilst maintaining the cadence and approach required corporately. 

It’s good to seek feedback on our own performance as senior leaders, too. Feedback is easier to receive when it comes from someone you have a trustful working relationship with. Often, it’s possible to listen between the lines and pick up on issues that could provide cause for self-reflection.

5. Accommodating personal needs and aspirations

I am lucky to work for a flexible organisation which enables this within broad and clear corporate parameters. The needs and aspirations of staff change as they move through their careers and lives. I always look for ways to accommodate requests from staff, whether that be to study, get involved with new work or to change their working arrangements to fit around their lives. 

6. Taking care of employee health and wellbeing

This has been even more important over the last 12 months with my team working remotely. It’s been all too easy to log on to a video call and get straight to business. We have missed the ‘corridor catch ups’ and personal interactions that bring a bit of fun and joy to our days.

It takes care and effort on the part of both leaders and staff to ensure that they keep in touch, to take the time to have a chat and catch up, and not to feel like every interaction has to be about business.