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Generation Integration: How a Technology Company Bridged the Generation Gap Between Two Organizations

by Devon Scheef and Diane Thielfoldt

The generation gap that families face around the dinner table has entered the workplace. For the first time in modern history, many organizations have people from four generations working side by side. Today’s American workplace is likely to include members of the Silent Generation (born 1933–1945); Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964); Generation Xers (born 1965–1976); and Milennials (born 1977–1998). Bridging the differences between these diverse groups, and melding them into effective work teams may seem overwhelming to most managers, especially considering the different ways the generations approach work. There are no easy solutions. But raising managers’ consciousness about these issues, and helping them understand how each generation looks at work and at their coworkers, can have a significant impact on their effectiveness on the job.

That is the approach that our client took when faced with a major intergenerational challenge in 2002. At that time, the company’s North American operations integrated two divisions which had been serving the same customers, to form the new Services Division. According to the client, the division, responsible for installation and post sale equipment repair and support, was a “stable, tenured, and very entrenched group. They were mostly male and mostly Baby Boomers and Silents.” “On the other hand, the division (which provided services on customers’ premises including copying, print production and mail distribution) was a much younger, more diverse group with many Gen Xers who were less tenured and had a youthful, entrepreneurial attitude, and their structure reflected that,” explained the client.

The more tenured middle managers moved into the more senior positions in the new organization. This suddenly left them in charge of a group of much younger managers and employees. It was a shock all around. In the past, managers and workers were used to dealing with people pretty much like themselves. Now they found themselves dealing with people who were very different.

According to the client, “the merger created a dichotomy of a mature management team working with younger people. Typically, these generations have conflicting attitudes, work styles and values and often have difficulty understanding each other. It’s important to understand the differences.”

Successful integration of these two groups was absolutely critical to achieving the cost reduction and productivity improvement goals that prompted the merger in the first place. Integration would have been complex under any circumstances. But what made integration even more complex, was the stark generational differences and the sheer size of the undertaking. The new division was trying to shape a cohesive, efficient organization out of a very diverse combined group of 15,000 people scattered throughout the United States under 400 managers.

“Our company has always taken diversity very seriously and the company was sensitive to intergenerational differences well before the merger. Understanding the generations adds one more dimension to our diversity approach. If you are going to engage each person to optimum effectiveness, you need to take into consideration diversity of thought and value systems, and you also need to understand how the time in which they were born affects them.”

With changing business conditions and assignments, the client’s leadership training had for some time focused on achieving some specific goals:

  • develop leaders at all levels
  • help managers deal with constant change
  • increase business acumen
  • help managers approach their job as owners of their business
  • teach managers to think more strategically

As part of this overall leadership training, held at the company’s Learning University, a workshop called Managing the Generations(tm) was included to sensitize all first line managers to the generational differences they would inevitably face. At the time of the merger, this workshop was part of a four-and -a-half day leadership development program for first and middle managers. There were 18 participants in each workshop and only 12 sessions planned for the year. However, the demographics of the merger demanded a more widespread and intensive approach to training about generations. Recognizing the importance of successful integration, the company immediately broadened the base of the training so that all managers in the newly merged organization would receive it.

The goal was to help these managers understand: they couldn’t manage the way they had in the past; this was a brand new organization with different needs, values and issues; and they needed to open their eyes to generational diversity and prepare them to meet the challenge of leading people of different ages.

“We needed to have the managers help us integrate the two groups,” says the client. “Fortunately, the managers understood that there was more to the job than managing as they had in the past. You can’t slam a new organization into an old model. The management techniques you learned 20 years ago may not work anymore with a new generation,” he said.

To date, the integrated group’s vice presidents, middle managers, and first line managers have all participated in the Managing the Generations workshops. The workshops do not provide pat solutions. But they do increase people’s awareness of what makes each generation tick, and show them how to work on that awareness in their daily management practices.

Before they participated in the training, many managers wondered if this was all really necessary. That quickly changed after the training. Some 99 percent of respondents to surveys after the workshop said that they have incorporated the insights and feedback from the experience into their daily business activities, and 95 percent indicated that it had an impact on their ability to lead successfully. The response was so enthusiastic, that the company is considering using the workshop for other divisions.

“The generation differences on my team range dramatically,” wrote one manager. “I have an employee in their 70s and the work ethic is stellar. I actually have to ask them to slow down. On the other hand, another associate is in their early 20s, and they believe they know it all. Being able to pull them together is a difficult task and before my training it left me feeling all stressed out. Now I can approach both associates and get the desired outcome because I have the understanding of what makes them tick.”

Another manager put her new knowledge into practice even before she got back to the office. “Before leaving to travel back home,” she wrote, “I had considered purchasing trinkets for my employees. After the class, and realizing the generation most of my employees are in, I realized that they probably would not appreciate this gesture from me so I decided not to buy anything. When I told them about my revelation, they laughed and thanked me for not buying them another mug!”

“This workshop has allowed me to understand different generations and behaviors better and to understand how to lead them effectively,” wrote another manager.

Understanding the generations seems to have been particularly useful for managers dealing with much younger workers. “I currently manage several different generations in the same account,” wrote one, “and the insight, especially to the current 18-23 year old generation, has been very helpful. I have done a better job at hiring qualified candidates with some of the things I’ve learned.”

“I am more receptive to Gen X and individuals who do not conform to my norm,” wrote another. “I am more self confident because I know my style is mine and is natural for me.”

The workshop, which is ongoing, begins with an explanation of the demographics of the two organizations, so that managers can clearly see the differences, and then shows them how these differences could impact their interactions with the people who work for them. Interactive presentations highlight differences between all four generation and the influences that shaped these differences, such as the Cold War, the anti war protests of the 60s, economic downturns, or the explosion of new technology. Participants are divided into four groups. Each group becomes an instant expert in one generation and presents their learnings to the rest of the class. Through these presentations, and opportunities to speak about what they have noticed personally, managers are able to articulate for the first time how different the workplace looks now, and to discuss how to deal with that beyond generalizations and stereotypes.

Managers also receive tools to take back to their work teams, including a foldout called “Generations Over Time,” which serves as a quick reference guide to understanding the trends and events that shaped each generation, from the Depression to World War II, to Vietnam, to Watergate to Columbine. They also take away a deck of 60 “Engagement Tickets” or “E-Tickets” each printed with an idea to jump-start their thinking on how to support careers, create a motivating work climate, and provide the kind of communication that each generation needs.

Besides the obvious benefits to managers and teams, the new look at what makes the generations tick has had another unexpected benefit. It has helped managers and employees understand their customers better.