The Pleasures–and Perils–of Managing a Diverse Team

The concept of a “diverse” workplace gained traction in the ’80s and ’90s, but it was framed largely in cultural and sociological terms.

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Today, corporate diversity programs that celebrate our differences live on, having evolved in many cases into special, dynamic opportunities for minorities, women, and other groups of people who have historically been underrepresented in corporate culture. These programs help them achieve equality and success on the job—and there is no doubt that the diverse, multicultural aspects they bring to the table are a benefit to all.

As we work through the second decade of the 21st century, workplace diversity is of course still top of mind for company managers and executives. But it’s one relatively new dimension of diversity that tends to get just as much attention these days. In some ways you could blame it on the baby boomers. As the boomers begin to retire in record numbers, and as more and more young people come in to take their place, today’s workforce is certainly diverse—in age.

With this kind of diversity come challenges. Think about it: A lab with a handful of managers who may be in their 50s, trying to work alongside those elusive “millennials” who are in their early 20s. Or better yet, a Gen Xer in her late 30s who still feels quite young, yet finds herself managing someone close to her parents’ age. Countless scenarios are possible—and all of them present opportunities for managers to be both enlightened and frustrated on the job.

After all, there exist both similarities and palpable divides between generations when it comes to attitudes on and views toward the workplace. How would a baby boomer approach a problem at work compared with a millennial, for instance? What kind of values does each generation bring to the table? With so many generations mixing together today in the workplace, managers must approach this kind of diversity with as much seriousness as they would any other diverse aspect of a company. Values and attitudes can indeed vary widely in the multigenerational and highly diverse workplace of the new millennium. Because of it, a one-size-fits-all management style may no longer be effective.

There are no doubt great things about working with so many different generations all at once. We’re not as different as we seem, and working with a diverse team can teach us that better than any other scenario. For example, according to recent survey results from the Kelly Global Workforce Index (KGWI), which surveys people around the world every year on current workplace issues, how we all see the future when it comes to our jobs seems to have changed significantly. Even baby boomers, who tended to stay at jobs longer, now realize, just as millennials and Gen Xers do, that workers have become more mobile and the workplace less rigid, leading to the rise in contract work and a general feeling that we all have to take responsibility for the trajectories of our careers.

In other words, flexibility, it seems, is something that all generations can understand, even if those who are older may not have experienced it for the majority of their careers. From management down, a workplace guided by more flexibility can mean a worker population that is potentially happier on the job.

Overall, today’s employees also care about working in places where they feel valued by their employers. And they want to be inspired and empowered by company leadership.

But still in other scenarios, people from different generations can often continue to experience their work lives very differently, leading at times to a balancing act that managers must learn to perform in order to relate to every team member effectively.

Members of Gen X, for example, born between 1965 and 1980, are used to hard work but have confidently come into their own, knowing that they can command a premium if they possess the right skills. They know they are in demand. Baby boomers, however, are starting to retire, but some may not be ready or can’t afford to do so. And yet, with crowding and competition from Gen X and millennials, baby boomers may feel less confident and may see themselves as having less bargaining power than in the past.

All of these feelings and differing views from across the generations will continue to make an impact at work—and will continue to inform management styles that can adapt to everyone’s needs. Every organization will figure out how to best handle this new workplace “diversity.”

With age diversity in the workplace expected to increase, those who learn how to best bring employees together will no doubt inspire much more harmony and production on the job.

Categories: Business Management

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Beyond The Bench Magazine Issue Cover
Beyond The Bench

Published: October 9, 2014

Cover Story

Beyond the Bench

Do you ever feel like you have hit a dead end in your career? Are you too busy attending to staff and their projects to even imagine a life beyond the lab bench?

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