IT SEEMS like companies have been extolling the virtues of diversity of late, so as to come across as a "choice employer".

But oddly, less attention is being paid to managing the practical issues resulting from diversity in age among co-workers, who bring their different perspectives to the table; this is the generation gap in operation at the workplace.

Shaped by different life experiences, the generations tend to have contrasting work styles, expectations and priorities that can be a source of discord if not properly managed.

For fear of sounding politically incorrect, younger managers are often reluctant to confront such issues. And their organisations also usually fail to adequately equip these new managers to handle such diverse teams.

 

Clash of the generations?

The most fundamental cause of conflict between the generations has to do with different perspectives of work.

Cheryl Liew-Chng, chief executive of LifeWorkz, a consultancy specialising in work-life, gender and generational issues, said: "Baby boomers see work as a means to an end. It gives them a sense of identity and security; the younger generation sees work as an expression of themselves and what they are good at." Gen X, which she deems the "sandwich generation", tends to work even if they don't like it because they grew up in a world where they had to be independent. How they get things done can rub their colleagues the wrong way.

Ms Liew-Chng added: "Baby boomers are used to a top-down approach; Gen X is more process-oriented, with hierarchy and protocols to be followed. Gen Y just gets the job done in whatever way that works for them."

The biggest hindrance has to do with subconscious bias and stereotypes. For example, the older generation such as the Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers tend to perceive the Millennials as entitled and lacking in discipline, while younger employees may see their older counterparts as conservative and dogmatic.

Joanne Chua, account director for South-east Asia in Robert Walters Singapore, said that certain character traits may be observed in each generation, but such negative stereotyping can affect work relationships and lead to dysfunctional and underperforming teams.

 

Being the younger boss

One potential source of tension in today's multi-generational workforce is when younger managers lead older workers. This is most salient when changes need to be implemented.

Helen Lim, founder and chief executive of Silver Spring, a job-matching site for mature workers, said: "As seniors age, the ability to embrace rapid changes is somewhat limited, while Gen X and Gen Y practically grew up with technology." She added that seniors who are expected to cope with changes at the same pace as the younger generation often end up frustrated. The result is that one side gives up on the other, or both do.

It is often up to the manager to salvage the situation.

Chia Xinling was put to the test when she joined her family's business, Hakko Products, five years ago as the youngest member among the staff of 15. The majority of the workers were older than 30; a third were above 60. She quickly learnt that she needed to change tack when dealing with her colleagues.

"The biggest problem is that older workers are usually unwilling to get on board any new initiative that sounds unfamiliar. When I first started, I would just tell them the new idea, have a discussion with them and then expect the idea to be implemented by everyone."

But now, her strategy is to broach the idea first in casual conversation, and give it time to sink in. Then, she starts convincing the team, a process that could take weeks. When it finally comes to implementation, she says she has to teach the members of the team exactly what needs to be done.

Ms Chia attributes this to different communication styles. "In our generation (Gen Y), communication is more direct and quick. For the older generation, instead of telling them what needs to be done, I involve them and make them feel part of the planning process."

Despite their initial reluctance, she said, the older members of the team are very "fast and good" once they get the hang of the new system. It soon becomes like clockwork to them.

She has, in turn, also learnt invaluable lessons from her older colleagues. "The younger generation is more impatient and wants to push the system to its limit to get things done fast. But I have come to realise that there are certain things that require waiting, so that a better outcome can be reached."

 

A work in progress

Ultimately, building an effective workplace that embraces all generations will remain a work in progress, with compromise and effort by all parties to make it work. For managers, taking the time to understand the communication style and needs of the different generations will go a long way in overcoming the generation gap.

Ms Liew-Chng said: "You must understand that the older generation have a fear that they will be displaced, and that you don't want them on your team.

"So engage them, give them a chance to be equipped, and get them to focus on common goals. When they see that you want them to win together with the group, they will turn around."