Best of HR Roundtable: Why Don’t We Focus More On Generational Strengths?

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Nov 20, 2015
This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.

Editor’s Note: TLNT has been publishing Steve Browne’s recaps of the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati for more than five years. For two weeks, we’re bringing back some you might have missed.

It has been literally months since the last HR Roundtable summary, and I want to thank you for the short respite. Please note that the forum is still strong and growing, but I needed a few months to recharge.

So in September, the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati reconvened to once again tackle the hot topics of HR! This month’s topic was Generational Strengths. Did you catch that? The focus was on what makes us great together vs. what differentiates us.

Steve opened  the discussion with a true brain teaser — When did we start having people from different generations in the workplace at the same time?

The answer is FOREVER! This is not a new issue, but those of us in HR treat it as this amazing revelation that people who are at different ages are working together. We need to discontinue the “dichotomy” approach of the generations and come together.

3 key Roundtable topics

Here are the topics we listed as we started the Roundtable:

  1. Why do we focus on generational differences vs. generational strengths?
  2. How can each generation’s strengths be used effectively?
  3. What would an integrated workplace look like?

The attendees had been aching to get back into small group discussions and there were folks from all of the current generations in the workplace at the Roundtable! Here’s what they had to share:

Why do we focus on generational differences vs. strengths?

  • It’s easier. An honest response. We tend to focus on why people aren’t like us vs. how we are alike. Also, when we focus on differences, we accentuate negatives and not positives. Just because it’s “easy” is a poor excuse.
  • We’re pack animals. Isn’t it great that we like to be in a herd? The answer to that is unequivocally NO! Organizations (and especially HR) push and push for conformity because we think that if everyone is the “same” then there will be less conflict, more engagement and utopia. Far from it. Remember this — conformity is overrated.
  • It’s how we learned — The idea that we were “taught” this way is an incredible trap because it allows ignorance to drive our behavior by letting stereotypes be our norm and descriptors. Be very careful about this stance. It leads to bigoted behavior and practices.
  • HR’s job is to correct things. Ick. This should NOT be your focus in HR. If people are “wrong” or “broken” because of their differences, then we need to get out of the human business.

Steve broke away here to make sure that the main point of this forum had to come out  — Generational issues are the BIGGEST diversity issue facing us today at work.

By highlighting differences we are encouraging people to split apart versus come together. It needs to cease. Our differences make us great and not difficult! Time to move forward …

How can each generation’s strengths be used effectively?

  • You need to ask! Often organizations use the “let’s sit back and see who rises to the top” theory when working with employees. This is ignorant and short-sighted. People love to be asked to be involved. They love to talk about what they can do and how they add value. Talk to your people. Don’t just sit idly by to see what will happen because often nothing will.
  • Use people’s strengths and don’t resist them. This isn’t a generational issue, it’s an organizational one. It’s time for HR to dismantle the “gap analysis” approach to performance management process and move to developing people from their strengths. It works. The gap approach hasn’t worked – and it won’t. Time for us to shift.
  • Encourage people to share their experience regardless of generation. People love to share.  Have a method to regularly seek input from all generations of staff. If you see things getting too imbalanced towards Boomers, Xers or Millenials, put on the brakes and get balance back in the mix. You’ll be amazed what you’ll learn if you have an intentional approach to getting people’s input.
  • Give people permission to fail. As people age, they conveniently forget the bad things. This is an incredible protective measure that our brains use, but it’s an awful oversight. The “good old days” weren’t. We just choose to remember the positive memories. People learn through failure regardless of their age. Allow it to happen in your organization and you’ll see better results when they do succeed.
  • Challenge what we believe. Call people out on their stereotypes and biases. Don’t be shy about this. If you don’t do this, you’ll inevitably fall into the trap of maintaining the status quo. This is true regardless of people’s generation. We are much better being comfortable than we are in challenging the norms. This has to be an attribute for relevant HR. It can’t be an option.
  • Establish informal times for all staff to interact. Get together for no other reason than to just chat. You don’t have to have an agenda or a team building exercise. You do have to have time for people to get to know each other. The more intentional this is, the better because if I get to know you as a person, I won’t quantify you as a generational stereotype. People crave interaction. Give it to them!

What would an integrated workplace look like?

  • We don’t know. You have to get this out there first because HR folks tend to jump to catch phrases like “synergy” and “on the same page” within seconds. Don’t allow this. Since there’s no set model, take the time to build one that works for your workplace. Here are some components to consider, but don’t look for the silver bullet. Make your organization unique – because it already is.
  • Give people a common battle cry. People want to be included, motivated and valued. If your company has a common battle cry to rally around, then generations won’t focus on each other, they’ll focus on their common purpose. Don’t believe it? Look up Toms Shoes. You’ll see it’s possible, successful and needed.
  • Mix folks up. Whether it’s project teams, new technology, strategy sessions, etc. – intentionally build teams that are multigenerational. Take one different approach when you do this. Don’t make them permanent. Allow teams to come together, work, accomplish (or fail) and then disband. When you try to breed permanence into your teams, they become stagnant and people will lose their vision and start picking on why everyone’s different.
  • Do reverse mentoring. Old is not a qualification in being a mentor. Neither is tenure. If you focus your mentoring on skill sets or the ability to succeed within the organization, you have a better chance of mentoring to have value. This isn’t a “teach me the ropes” approach. It’s a “here are the skills you need to succeed” approach. Any generation can mentor another one.
  • Understand that ALL workplaces are multigenerational. As mentioned at the beginning of this summary. All employers have this opportunity to leverage and value the different generations in the workplace today. See how your company can take this positive approach and share it with your clients (who are dealing with these same issues). You can be the model that shows that generational strength makes you a great organization, and they can be one as well.

It sure was great to get back into the swing of things. If you haven’t been to an HR Roundtable, why don’t you join us if you’re in Cincinnati? It’s a great environment to meet other HR pros, learn from each other and build a network that will help you now and into the future – regardless of your generation!

This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.