Leading across the generations

Transactional leadership styles offer an efficient way to communicate and lead today’s age-diverse workforce, but they’re not without drawbacks.

In today’s workplace, miscommunication is more likely than ever before.

This is due in part to the proliferation of communication tools and technology and ever-evolving ways to communicate in increasingly rapid ways. But it’s also due to the different values and life experiences that shape the different generations at work.

With the various generations come differing communication styles and knowledge gained throughout a lifetime of experience. 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 in the best possible way to boost understanding, motivation and results.

When attempting to lead people representing multiple generations, it is important to remember each is unique and can contribute to success through different strengths and weaknesses. Examining the primary generations at work today is a good place for managers to start. 

Generations in today’s workforce

With an increasing number of generations working alongside one another in organizations, a trend of miscommunication between those of different generations has developed.

For the purpose of this paper, there are three main generations visible in the general workforce today: baby boomers, Generation Xers and millennials. Each has its own set of characteristics and values which make them unique. How these generations are separated varies from study to study, but for the purpose of this paper, baby boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964, Generation Xers are those born between 1965 and 1980, and millennials are those born between 1981 and 2000. Each generation has different likes, dislikes, attributes and attitudes surrounding work.

Of the main miscommunication issues that arise when dealing with people of different generations, one of particular importance occurs between a manager of a certain generation when communicating with employees who are of differing generations, whether that is a boomer managing Generation Xers or a millennial managing boomers.

There are leadership style differences between the generations as well. Some prefer a more autocratic leadership style while others prefer a hands-off leader. While there is no right or wrong leadership style, some work better when communicating within and between the generations. Generational differences have a large impact on reaction.

The preferred leadership styles of each generation should be important to managers for many reasons but primarily because using the preferred leadership style when communicating with people from different generations builds more trust. This will in turn increase communication among managers and employees as well as possibly increasing employee motivation and performance. If a leadership style is not working for a certain person, they are less likely to be motivated to work hard.

Leadership styles overview

For purposes of this discussion, the five main leadership styles are: laissez-faire, autocratic, participative, transactional and transformational.

Laissez-faire leadership, the most relaxed of the styles, should be used for employees who are highly experienced and trained. Because it does not value direct supervision, it also fails to provide regular feedback, which can be a problem for employees who are not well-trained and require direct supervision. In autocratic leadership, on the other hand, the manager has total control over the employees and will often make decisions without their input. This leadership style benefits employees who require direct supervision but not those who are more creative.

Participative leaders value the input of the team but realize the end decision rests on the leader. This leadership style is known to give responsibility to employees, which in turn can boost trust in the manager as well as morale from the employees. Transactional leadership involves a give-and-take relationship between the manager and the employee. This means that the manager and employee are predetermined to meet goals together and the manager provides rewards or punishments to team members based on their accomplishments on the predetermined tasks.

Transformational leadership depends on high levels of communication and requires the involvement of management to reach goals. This means the manager will focus on the bigger picture within an organization and delegate smaller tasks to contribute to the overall goals of the company.

Leadership styles across the generations

In a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Diversity Management, Mecca M. Salahuddin writes that baby boomers have characteristics that were shaped by events like the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam and the high-profile assassinations of political figures and social movement leaders. Baby boomers tend to be more positive about authority, hierarchy and tradition and are also optimistic, driven and team-oriented, according to the paper. That combination means some baby boomers are willing to respect authority as long as they know their opinion or contribution is being considered in decision-making processes.

From a leadership standpoint, participative leadership style and techniques can be effective. Approaching boomers with respect for their achievements, challenging them to contribute to a team in an attempt to solve organizational problems and involving them in organizational change initiatives are techniques that can work, write Ahmed Al-Asfour and Larry Lettau in a 2014 article in the Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics. Doing this ensures they feel part of the decision-making process and could motivate them to work harder in an attempt to contribute more.

Where baby boomers are more team-oriented, Gen Xers tend to be more individually motivated and self-reliant. Often described as cautious, skeptical or unimpressed with authority, Generation X tends to be fair, competent, straightforward and at times brutally honest. According to a study of perspectives on leadership conducted by Kathryn Eileen Holden and Deana M. Raffo of Middle Tennessee State University, Generation X admires competency and honesty. They do not value achievement as highly as other generations.

Due to their straightforward nature and need for honesty, Gen Xers are often the most difficult to manage and may not fit into one set traditional leadership style. To gain their trust, tell them the truth, offer learning opportunities and respect the experiences that shaped their values, beliefs and ways of thinking, write Al-Asfour and Lettau. For some organizations, Gen Xers have become a major focus for managers due to the retirement of baby boomers.

Like generations before them, millennials were shaped by events. In their case, 9/11 and the Great Recession have influenced their beliefs and way of life. Many millennials have the mentality that they do not live to work but, rather, focus on their life outside of work. They often prefer fast and immediate processing as well as working in teams. They also prefer to work in a more relaxed environment than a hierarchical structure and because of their unlimited access to information tend to be assertive with strong views.

Many millennials prefer to receive continuous and instant feedback from their managers. According to Al-Asfour and Lettau, they like to know that what they do matters as well as like to be praised in public for things they accomplish. Even though they prefer to be rewarded, it is best to tell them the truth about their work. If they are told they are underperforming, they will likely increase their productivity in an attempt to reach a reward.

A transactional solution for multiple generations

While each generation many have a preferred leadership style, that begs the question of how best to lead teams that include members of each generation. A manager may not want to treat one employee different than another, if simply to avoid the appearance of discrimination based on age.

The best option for managers may be to use a transactional leadership style. While this is not the preferred style for any generation, it includes aspects of each of the preferred leadership styles and is easiest to relate across generations. Transactional leaders tend to value structure and operate according to clear rules and regulations. They are focused on results and recognize and reward employees on a practical level, such as with money or perks.

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. This balance of flexibility and structure makes transactional leadership an appealing approach for each generation. By maintaining one consistent leadership style when communicating with different generations, it ensures the message is received by all and does not appear to be discriminatory or biased toward one generation.

While transactional leadership can be a good fit when dealing with multiple generations, it does have advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include clearly defined rewards and penalites, the ability to achieve short-term goals quickly and clear structure. On the flip side, creativity is limited because goals and objectives are already set and it may not be the best fit for organizations where initiative is encouraged.

If you build it, they will come

It is ultimately up to managers to determine the best way to lead and develop the people under their supervision using a style that builds trust in the process. Each generation has a preferred way to be led, shaped through their life experiences and the values instilled within them. However, it is critical to avoid discrimination in communication and remember that what works for one person of a certain generation may not work for another person from the same generation.

When a manager knows their employees and establishes trust with them, they learn the life experiences that have shaped their individual employees and can then figure out the best way to communicate with them. This analysis is just a stepping stone to help managers get on the right track to communicating with employees in a way that is most beneficial for the employee rather than the manager. By building trust and opening the communication channels, performance and results should rise.