The world has been in constant demographic change and it’s experiencing immense changes with the advancement in vast technologies and proliferation in communication tools, resulting in clear and more prominent differences between different age groups or generations (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). Over the last couple of years, there has been interaction between three very different generations inside the workplace, Generation X, Generation Y better known as millennials, and most currently Generation Z (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). Dr. Paul White mentions in his article (2019), “The Changing Workplace: Generational Differences”, that “the issue of understanding, leading, and working with employees from different generations continues to be one of the most common challenges leaders mention to me”.
This puts into perspective that there are clear differences between employees in large part due to distinct life experiences. This suggests a higher chance of discomfort, conflict, and misunderstanding inside the workplace, setting up leaders to a big challenge in maintaining a healthy organization and work environment (White, 2019). According to White (2019), “the number of Millennial and Gen Z employees is expected to surpass the Generation X (individuals in their late 50s and older) by the end of 2019 and they will comprise nearly half of the total working population by 2020”. Different views and ideas about work and life clash within the encounter of these generations inside the workplace (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014).
As the overlapping of these generations increases, it is imperative for the managers inside the organizations to be able to handle, manage and convert these differences into positive organizational results (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). The necessity for the effective leading of a multi-generational workforce is thriving and it becomes vital for the survival of organizations in modern times (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Discussions are being raised among leaders over the application of different approaches of leadership and management in multi-generational workforces (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012).
Each generation holds different characteristics, which shows that managers should not use the same leadership style to suit all employees (Tishma, 2018). Suggesting, that the correct approach when communicating with different generations is extremely important since it will increase employee motivation and performance (Tishma, 2018). As Mariel Tishma wrote in her article (2018), “Leading across generations”, “each generation has a preferred way it likes to be led and using these preferred leadership styles managers are better able to build trust and communicate with employees”.
With generations having different ways of communicating, thinking, and acting it is critical to understand their characteristics and learn more about the behavior of each inside the corporative environment. Nonetheless, a profound analysis of the different leadership styles is necessary. Deciding where do they fit considering the characteristics of each generation and how can managers successfully apply these styles inside the workplace.
2 The encounter of three generations
2.1 Generation X
Generation X is the group of people born between 1961 and 1980 (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). This generation is described as having unique traits and valuing work-life balance (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014; Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). This generation resulted to be more open-minded and less traditional than their predecessors; they tend to think in a more progressive way and on a more global scale due to the rise of the Internet and the exposure to more advanced computers (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014; Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012; Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). Al Asfour and Letau (2014) describe this generation’s core values as diverse, risk-tolerant, fun, informal, individualistic, self-reliant, and entrepreneurial. Belal et al. (2012) suggest that this generation is informal but more adaptable to certain situations in comparison to their predecessors. They tend to be more focused on what the end is and not on what it takes to get there, they care more about the outcome (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012).
According to Al Asfour and Lettau, Generation X is greatly influenced by its leaders and that determination is inside this generation’s genes (2014). This idea was explored by Arsenault (2004), who noted that leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Gates had a great impact in Gen Xers into adopting determination as leaders. Adding to this generation’s characteristics inside the workplace, Belal et al. argue that the Generation X cohort tends to thrive in a work setting that affords them the opportunity to promote socially-important interactions with supportive colleagues (as cited in Benson & Brown, 2011; Wallace, 2006). The following generation has proved to have totally different characteristics primarily molded by their technological abilities (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012).
2.2 Generation Y – Millenials
Generation Y or Millenials is the first generation since Generation X to present “superlative” advantages compared to past generations due to being raised inside of what we call the digital age (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). People encompassed in this group were born between 1981 and 2000 (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). This generation embraces the values of optimism, scrutiny, collaboration, innovation, civic duty, confidence, integrity, achievement, and ecologically awareness, and are conventional and socially conscious (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014; Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). As mentioned before, the technological advantages that are practically innate in Millenials turn them in very important and valuable “assets” inside organizations that deal with relatively new technologies (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012).
Due to advances in technology the whole world changed turning societies into more dynamic and vulnerable to fast-paced changes (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Al Asfour and Lettau describe (2014) Generation Y individuals as self-absorbed, self-reliant, and with a strong sense of independence and autonomy in conjunction with being image-driven and highly motivated to achieve personal accomplishments that they view as success (as cited in Williams & Page, 2011). The workplace seems not to be a comfortable place for Millenials (Tishma, 2018). They prefer working in environments where they have control and can give themselves flexibility and establish independence. According to Belal et al. (2012) causes for this goes all the way to the increase of economic value in businesses linked to the Internet and the great economic instability that lead to increases in divorce and layoffs. Turning this generation into a society skeptical to a planned life with long-term commitments, living in the moment became a way of life (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012).
This generation lacks patience and searches for constant and immediate rewards even though when they don’t deserve it, they look for participation rewards (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). According to Belal et al., this is why many of them tend to reject competition with people close to them and keep their distance from politics (as cited in Tolbzie, 2008). Al Asfour and Lettau argue that this generation prefers working in groups and collaborating with others in a dynamic working environment, they also take into consideration and value the purpose of their work (as cited in Hewlett et al., 2009). Also, adding to this, Al Asfour and Lettau classified this generation as “opinionated” and that they strive to have a place in the organization and look to be heard (as cited in Hartman & McCambridge, 2011, p. 24). The next and last Generation is called Generation Z.
2.3 Generation Z
This Generation is the newest and it’s the one who is starting to enter the workplace. Belal et al. categorize this generation as people born between 2001 and the present time (2012). Surprisingly, Belal et al. describe this generation as the new conservatives, highlighting their traditional beliefs, valuing the family, self-controlled, and more responsible (as cited in Williams & Page, 2011). This generation tends to depend less in their parents and searches for independence and maturity in earlier stages compared to past generations (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). This generation was already born in an Internet era and still has not experienced massive changes in technology, they are fast to adapt to today’s technologies and are very tech savvy (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). They tend to prefer security and stability in their lives and like to plan things out (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). Belal et. Al describe them as very similar to their last generation counterparts in terms of characteristics and specifically similar in two areas inside the workplace: expectations of career planning and using a mix of different learning styles (as cited in The United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund, n.d.)
3 Analysis of leadership styles
This approach to leadership in the workplace focuses more on achieving organizational objectives through the reward-punishment method, they strive for short-term goals (Tishma, 2018). As Tishma argues (2018) this kind of leadership motivates its subordinates by appealing to their personal interests, and leaders form a give-take relationship with their employees. This style rewards good performances and also recognizes accomplishments (Tishma, 2018). Tishma highlights (2018) a laissez-faire approach within this leadership style meaning that leaders tend to abdicate responsibility and avoid making decisions. They stick to the norms and are very strict with rules; they rarely change the way of executing tasks (Tishma, 2018).
According to Tishma (2018), transformational leaders “depend on high levels of communication and require the involvement of management to reach goals”. This type of leader will focus on maintaining and watching out on the bigger picture of the organization and leaving smaller tasks of the organization to its subordinates, so they can feel part of the organization as well (Tishma, 2018). This type of leader possesses a high degree of emotional intelligence, which reflects on his individualized consideration, advice, and connection with individuals (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). The growth and development of others is of great importance, in a result, they focus a lot in the intellectual stimulation of their subordinates (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Tishma mentions (2018) that this leader promotes intelligence, rationality, and careful problem-solving. They are able to instill pride and gain trust and motivate others due to their way of acting inside the organization and by communicating high expectations (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014; Tishma, 2018).
In 1969 Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey developed a leadership style that suggested that leaders could adjust their approach to the work environment and the needs of each organization, team, and individual (Blanchard & Zigarmi, 2018). Blanchard (2018) gave a different perception to leadership by stating, ‘When you think in a pyramid,’ continued the One Minute Manager, ‘the assumption is that everyone works for the person above them on the organizational ladder.” Focusing on closing the gap between managers and employees as mentioned by Blanchard (2018), ‘I prefer to turn the pyramid upside down so that top managers are at the bottom,’ said the One Minute Manager. ‘When that happens there is a subtle, but powerful, twist in who is responsible and who should be responsive to whom.’ In short words, the manager should work for their people and not the reverse (Blanchard & Zigarmi, 2018).
Within this style of leadership, Blanchard categorized (2018) them into four secondary styles: directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating. Directing is mainly for new people inside the workforce, inexperienced workers, and situations of crisis. It involves specific guidance and careful supervision. Leaders need to communicate exactly what they want. Coaching encompasses training the individual to be able to emotionally support and carry out tasks. They build the character of the individual and persuade them to do their best as a person and as a team. Supporting involves taking care of the individual and making sure he doesn’t get unmotivated, these leaders leave decisions to team members. Involves facilitating and sharing. And the final one, delegating as a leader involves leaving individuals to progress and experiment on their own, this approach gives more value to the relationship that is built between the manager and the employee. The leader makes sure this individual is committed to the organization and has the potential to succeed inside it. Minimum support and guidance is provided. Blanchard also mentions (2018) that every leader should “learn to use a variety of leadership styles flexibly. You have to learn how to diagnose the needs of the people you supervise. And you have to learn how to come to some agreements with them, to contract with them for the leadership style they need from you.” Blanchard adopts (2018) a phrase that says “Different strokes, for different folks”. Everyone understands things differently in large part due to their life experience and their personal traits (Blanchard & Zigarmi, 2018).
4 Leadership styles across generations
As we analyzed pieces of generational literature involving the different characteristics between generations and the different leadership styles that can be applied, it is imperative to follow the process and merge these two factors into one to come to a conclusion.
4.1 Leadership strategies for Generation X in the workplace
In 2014, Al Asfour and Lettau noted that this generation adapted and preferred leadership characteristics from their time being: fairness, competent and straightforward, do not respect for authority as did past generations, preference of egalitarian relationships, like to be challenged, and thrive on change and that brutal honesty is a trademark of this generation (as cited in Zemke et al. 2000). A productive and effective environment may be well created by establishing an informal and fun workplace (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Due to the retiring of the past generation, Generation X calls for a progressively focused, employee-centered, and collaborative approach to handling the generational gap (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014).
Being the oldest generation between the ones already mentioned, it puts managers up to a challenge in modern times, in large part due do their straightforwardness (Tishma, 2018). This idea was also explored by Al Asfour & Letau (2014), suggesting that “Traditional approaches to leadership styles are not recommended for Generation X”. Al-Asfour and Lettau mentions (2014) that “To gain their trust, tell them the truth, offer learning opportunities and respect the experiences that shaped their values, beliefs and ways of thinking”. An ideal approach for this generation would be a transformational leader that gives people of this generation their space and motivates them through actions and not by directing (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Promoting a teamwork environment and individualized consideration by also encouraging them to learn and be creative, is linked with decentralized decision-making (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014; Tishma, 2018).
4.2 Leadership strategies for Generation Y in the workplace
Al Asfour and Lettau find (2018) Generation Y very similar to Generation X. As mentioned before, according to Al Asfour and Letau (2018), “important key values for this generation include choice, customization, scrutiny, integrity, collaboration, speed, entertainment, and innovation (as cited in Williams and Page, 2011). Al Asfour and Lettau recommend (2018) that leaders should focus on giving this generation constant, continuous, and developmental feedback as they are always looking for a constant and timely opinion on the work that they do. Leaders should also encourage a polite relationship with authority (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). An important factor is always mentioning the mission and value of the organization and highlighting the purpose of their tasks (Belal, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012). The approach of leadership to a Generation Y workforce should be by delegating within situational leadership and also applying a transactional leadership style. This generation looks for constant reward, “let them know that what they do matters, praise them in public-make them a “star” and always be on the lookout for “rewarding opportunities” (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Supporting this theory, Tishma noted (2018) “If they are told they are underperforming, they will likely increase their productivity in an attempt to reach a reward”.
Transactional leadership allows leaders to motivate their followers by appealing to their interests and also to work within the organizational culture, not providing too much change, which will tend to scare off millennials. Tishma also mentions (2018) that “Along with being able to recognize and reward employees based on pre-established rules, regulations or goals set by a company, transactional leadership also favors structured policies and procedures. Employees can either work independently or in a tightly organized hierarchical structure”. Adding to this, Al Asfour and Lantau point out (2014) the importance of honesty with clearly identified boundaries, mentoring programs, effective communication, clear expectations and offers for learning opportunities for people inside the X and Y generations.
4.3 Leadership strategies for Generation Z in the workplace
The last but newest generation is just entering the workforce and finding themselves in a very diverse work environment. Al Asfour and Latau mention (2014) “the leadership style appropriate for this generation will not be too far from Generation Y.” Hence, this assumes that a similar approach should be taken when dealing with Generation Z and Y individuals, both being raised in very technological and similar worlds (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Gen Z will look for an organizational culture that involves technology and a very dynamic working environment, they will prefer automating processes and using technology in every aspect of their tasks (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). They will seek organizations that do not have a traditional hierarchy inside the workplace (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Just like Generation Y they constantly “hunt” for gratifications opportunities (Tishma, 2018).
Mentioning the purpose of the organization and how it will help them grow and get where they want to go is key (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). As mentioned for the Y Generation, the most ideal approach will be transactional leadership accompanied with the establishment of small dynamic groups with clear goals and performance-driven (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). A focus on delegating or coaching will be effective for this generation since it is a perfect combination of giving them the confidence to achieve tasks by direct praise and feedback and also they will have the freedom of choosing the direction they want to take (Blanchard & Zigarmi, 2018).
Tishma explains (2018) in her article, “Leading Across the Generations”, that the final approach on the workforce falls into the manager’s hands, determining “the best way to lead and develop the people under their supervision using a style that builds trust in the process”. It is worth mentioning that there’s no specific style of leadership for the entire workforce (Tishma, 2018). Each individual is a world of his own and this is in large part determined by their life experiences and the world they were raised in (Tishma, 2018). Al Asfour and Latau support this idea by stating “Issues relating to the economy, scientific progress, technology, politics, social change, and other factors have an immense impact on each generation in shaping its views and the characteristics of their working environment” (as cited in Williams & Page, 2011).
Differences, precisely, are not supposed to be understood in a negative connotation but instead, leaders have to adopt these studies as an encouragement to learn more about the people they work with and as Al Asfour and Latau mention “to create a work environment that meets the needs and expectations of all employees, regardless of their generation”. We should see the differences as different potential strengths that are waiting to be exploited (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). It’s imperative for leaders to understand the different values and views that are instilled in their workers. Al Asfour and Latau explain this position (2014) “What some leaders might view as inappropriate, employees, depending on their generation, might view as appropriate. Therefore, leaders need to understand the best way of leading people based on their generation and other diversity factors.”
The purpose of the analysis of different literature involving the handling of multi-generational workforces was to provide an open perspective on the characteristics of different generations (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014). Followed by establishing and appropriately linking them with the most effective approach to benefit the organization (Tishma, 2018). The ultimate goal is to help leaders adopt a more conscious and responsive mentality when dealing with the needs and behaviors of their followers (Al Asfour & Letau, 2014).
- Al Asfour, A., & Letau, L. (2014). Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics vol. 11. Strategies for Leadership Styles for Multi-Generational Workforce. Kyle, South Dakota, United States.
- Belal , K., Nafei, W., Khanfar, N., & Kaifi, M. (28 de November de 2012). A Multi-Generational Workforce: Managing and Understanding Millennials. International Journal of Business and Management. Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, United States.
- Blanchard, K., & Zigarmi, P. (11 de November de 2018). LEADERSHIP AND THE ONE MINUTE MANAGER: Increasing Effectiveness Through Situational Leadership. New York City, New York, United States.
- Tishma, M. (17 de May de 2018). Leading Across the Generations. Chicago, Illinois, United States.
- White, P. (21 de January de 2019). THE CHANGING WORKPLACE: GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES. Chicago, Illinois, United States.
- Arsenault, P. (2004). Validating generational difference: A legitimate diversity and leadership issue. Leadership & Organizational Development Journal, 25(2), 124-141.
- Benson, J., & Brown, M. (2011). Generations at work: Are there differences and do they matter? International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22(9), 1843-1865.
- William, K., & Page, R. A. (2011). Marketing to the generations. Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business, 3(3), 1-17. Retrieved from http://www.aabri.com/manuscripts/10575.pdf
- Hewlett, S. A., Sherbin, L., & Sumberg, K. (2009). How generation and baby boomers will reshape your agenda. Harvard Business Review, 71-77.
- Hartman, J. H., & McCambridge, J. (2011). Optimizing Millenials’ Communication Styles. Business Communication Quarterly, 74(1), 22-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1080569910395564
- Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at work: Managing the clash of veterans.boomers, Xers, and nexters in your workplace. New York: NY: AMACOM.