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People are People, or Aren’t They?


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The digital age provides countless opportunities for people who have the right expertise, skills, and mindsets to achieve success in their careers. It is the people or crew that will transform their organisations and disrupt industries using new business models, enhanced skills enabled by a plethora of digital technologies. All the evidence suggests that as human beings we must concentrate on continually advancing our human traits and capabilities.  These things set us apart, allowing the machines to take over the elements that they can do so well.

For the first time in history, five generations are working side by side; it is a multi-generational playing field and there is a name, a ‘label’ and some suggested attributes and characteristics for each one: The question is … are there predominant and different traits across generations that we need be aware of and deal with? 

There are two primary schools of thought about this.  One suggests that generational labels such as Millennials and Baby Boomers and their characteristics are valuable ways of simplifying the diversity of the people around us.  The other school suggests that, on the contrary, these labels are constructs that have replaced a fundamental understanding of the individuals in any given generation with false assumptions about that generation. 

The diversity of the modern workforce creates some questions and challenges some of the assumptions that are often held.

Leadership isn’t just for the tenured folk 

Whilst people are indeed working longer, age is not and indeed should not be an indicator for hierarchical seniority, and so its common in the modern workforce to see someone younger managing someone older.

Of course, how this works is certainly not always easy to determine.  Like any working relationship, it is based on factors such as individual personalities and organisational culture and structure. Of course, managing, motivating, and retaining employees is a challenge for any organisation.  It’s worth considering if there are unique generational characteristics that leaders and managers must recognise to support this, but I’m inclined to believe it’s largely down to the individual.

I believe that generational characteristics are largely false constructs of social fiction.  Whilst people of a particular era will share traits based on socio-economic and cultural factors, it is dangerous to generalise and label.  If we do so ‘carte blanch, we ultimately forget to understand individuals, and we make false assumptions about the generation.  

It is important not to define an individual by their broad demographic group, and the key is to look beyond these definitions and identify people’s individual talents, personalities, and preferences.  Whilst generational stereotypes are intended to help foster understanding of generational differences, if we rely on them too much, they can lead to unfair labels and discrimination with a consequence that people and indeed teams perceive each other differently than they really are.  Whilst I agree we will have preferences and perceptions based on our experiences, it is over-simplistic to suggest that this is simply a generational manifestation.

Diversify workforce for success

Behaviours, skills, and beliefs add diversity, but this isn’t just generational; ethnic, gender, and cultural elements also play a role.  A mix of generations (and those other elements) adds diversity to a workforce and doesn’t mean it should create additional challenges and obstacles.  The differences between individuals, not socially constructed groups, can be turned into an advantage and an opportunity to grow and evolve.  Everyone brings assets to the workforce, no matter how experienced they are.  The most important thing managers and leaders can do is to create an environment where people understand and appreciate various points of view, even if they differ from their own.

Building a cross-generational team

Whilst understanding that different perceived mindsets and tendencies of different generations may require consideration, it is important to make sure that this doesn’t create a fragmented workforce.  Engage people of all ages so they build relationships with each other.  Appeal to the right people in the right way and you will have a workforce that operates beyond mere policies and processes.

A few tips based on my own recent experience:

Cross-generational mentoring

I recently added a young mentor to my armoury. It was an idea I heard about at a conference, and I loved it.  I now have a young mentor, and it has given me an entirely new perspective and education on so many things. 

You can try it out both ways. Invest in reverse or reciprocal mentoring programs, which pair younger workers with seasoned employees to work on specific business objectives.  To develop digital services, we need cross-functional teams and people with a range of skills from all parts of an organisation.  Younger people are primarily were weaned on technology; the perfect go-to person for tech questions or focus on the latest trends in that space.  Similarly, an older team member might be able to give significant insight on career growth based on their wealth of expertise.    

Colleagues learn more from each other than they do from formal training, which is why it is so essential to establish a culture of coaching across age groups.  

We are more similar than you think.  

The past year has been an eye-opener for me generally.  More time invested in authentic leadership, mindfulness, and self-awareness has led me to conclude that we are all more similar than we are different. Embrace what people share, not what divides them.  Not only does this build collaboration, but it also helps build trust across teams generally.  Don’t create generation-based employee affinity groups – they generally reinforce stereotypes.  

Just as you would research a new product or service, you need to study people and the current and future workforce to determine what they want out of their jobs.  Figure out what matters to different employees.  Use workshops and other gatherings to ask about your employees’ preferred communication style, working environment, and planned careers paths.  A lot of things will be similar across people of all ages, and knowing where there are differences means they can be catered for in an inclusive fashion.

Creating a diverse leadership team 

For far too long, leadership has been synonymous with hierarchical seniority.  Give those who want it opportunities to lead. 

Treat everyone, from the newest recruit to the most seasoned employee, as if they have great things to offer. It can be a method for engaging younger staff and enabling them to share unique skills. It will help to table different ideas and allow the choice of the best one. Whilst, established, time-tested methods may end up being the best approach to doing something, individuals should remain open to innovation and change rather than defaulting to “the ways things are done.” 

Learn more about what your colleagues need from you

I now start every meeting with a check-in. Asking participants to describe their feelings and mood in two words (it doesn’t even need any additional narrative).  It really helps you to understand their contribution and actions within the context of the moment.  

Use your knowledge of a team to interact and manage based on an individual’s goals, abilities and strengths.   As mentioned earlier, people may have common attributes, but they also have individual needs.  Tailor your management for every individual’s qualities, identity and aspirations.

Embracing an age-diverse workforce 

Having a good mix of people (ages, ethnicity, gender, etc) in your workforce creates an environment rich with maturity and experience and youthful exuberance.   It’s crucial that you understand how to ensure that your people rise above their age stereotypes and pull together to accomplish the goals of the organisation, and having managers and leaders employing the right strategies to support this rather than reverting to stereotypical assumptions is imperative to team and ultimately organisational success. By focusing on individual preferences and investing in personal relationships, organisations can benefit from a diversity of ideas and opinions, which can, in turn, drive success and enable a motivated crew and positive culture.

Jason Skidmore
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