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Losing the gladiator mentality: why multi-generation workplaces need more collaboration

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Tammy Willson, Business Transformation Director, News UK

For the first time in modern history there are four generations sharing the workplace. Alexis de Tocqueville’s view that, “each generation is a new people”, highlights the inherent difficulties this multigenerational maelstrom presents. But it also shines light on an opportunity: for older generations to actively listen and learn from those entering the workplace, and for younger employees to acknowledge the experience and expertise they can exchange with those who’ll be leaving the workforce sooner.

Let’s start by locking our egos in a cupboard for a minute. In order to build the types of workplaces that successfully manage, and develop, talented employees across the generations, those in positions of seniority need to sit comfortably with the knowledge that they don’t have all the answers. 

In a recent study by US Trust, 84% of Baby Boomers said they intended to remain in the same job for the rest of their working life. Unless those Boomers listen – really listen – to the motivations of Generation Y & Z who are naturally entrepreneurial; want to work ‘with’ not ‘for’ companies, and are looking to take a career break within five years of leaving full-time education, the workplace of the near future is going to resemble a gladiator’s arena rather than a harmonious blend of those ‘new people’ de Tocqueville describes, bringing out the best in each other. This Gladiator Mentality will only serve to reinforce, rather than break down, generational divides. 

Each generation has distinct work ethics and values, helpfully laid out by Zemke, Raines and Filipczak in their book ‘Generations At Work’. Taking time to understand the motivations of others is a chance to learn that should be embraced by everyone in the workplace, particularly, but not only, by those who manage people. Embraced – and modelled – by the most senior members of the company, department or team, to develop a culture that actively brings different opinions to the same table, allows subject matter experts to use their voices and, crucially, to be heard. 

I observed this in action on a recent team volunteering day and it is intoxicating. Not only does it make the youngest, newest members of a team feel valued (and will have an impact on their loyalty to the business) but it shows leadership really understanding the importance, and relevance of the ‘soft’ skills which, when coupled with decision-making based on data and insight, will turbocharge innovation and transformation in the modern work environment.

We have just recruited four apprentices into our team and, having been a part of the recruitment process from the beginning, I have been blown away by the passion, enthusiasm and unbridled excitement of these young people who we are so lucky to now be working with. But bringing in people from backgrounds that would traditionally struggle to get a break in our industry cannot be a box-ticking exercise.  

Echo chambers of experience stifle innovation, reinforce siloed working practises that are outdated and seriously damage brand perception both as employers and for consumers. So, treat every single employee in your multi-generational workplace in the same way that you treat your consumers. 

Age is no substitute for subject matter expertise, but neither is youth the only route to evolution. Seek out opinion, experience and backgrounds that challenge your own and grab the opportunity to learn, grow and build alliances that transcend traditional hierarchies and disciplines. 

Now, feel free to get your ego back out of the cupboard if you must, but don’t let it drown out the voices of the people whose stories you need to hear; those who are yet to make their mark in this industry, and could use your help.

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