One of the most spirited debates online this past week was in response to an article titled, “The 37 year olds are afraid of the 23 year olds that work for them.” It went on to explore the tension between Millennial managers and Gen Z employees over topics like work-life boundaries (Gen Z expects them), bringing your values to work (Gen Z not only does, but expects you to do so as well) to the norms and styles of communication (I was sad to learn that laughing crying emoji is so passé).

That said, I had to laugh because this article could have been written fifteen years ago about the Millennials. What each generation cares about most might change in nuanced ways, but new generations in the workforce inevitably bring about change. WeSpire wrote a summary several years ago about Gen Z and what they expect. Many of these changes are positive. Most importantly, Millennials and Gen Z have both pushed companies to be more of a force for good in this world, to be healthier, more sustainable and more inclusive than previous generations.

However, the title of the piece is a light into the downside of generational differences: fear. Fear at work, whether it’s managers or employees, Gen Z or Boomers, is not good for business. In fact, we know that psychological safety — or the ability to take risks and be yourself at work without fear– is key to high performing teams. So you need every generation to feel safe – and included – at work.

So how do you create a culture of generational inclusivity?

  1. Start by understanding whether different generations feel safer or less safe in your organization. In a project with a tech services client, there was a hypothesis that older employees felt less safe in the workplace due to tech-specific ageism and bearing a disproportionate share of recent layoffs. We were able to disprove that hypothesis and showed that contrary to popular belief, younger employees are less likely to feel safe.
  1. Focus on improving psychological safety for all. In her great TED talk on the topic, Amy Edmonson speaks to three steps to improve psychological safety on any team: Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem; acknowledge your own fallibility. Model curiosity; ask lots of questions. My hunch is that many Millennial managers think they need to have all the answers, when in fact, being honest that you don’t and asking questions can help quell the fear.
  1. Create relationship building opportunities for generations to learn from each other. My parents spent a lot of time with college students. I’m convinced it kept them more fluent on changes to music, politics, and technology. Conversely, Gen X and Boomer leaders have navigated everything from the stock market crash in the late 80s to 9-11 to the Great Recession to a global pandemic, which offers a lot of lessons learned for younger employees. By getting outside our generational boxes and connecting with each other as humans, we all grow.

I also think a key to psychological safety is to be very clear about cultural norms and expectations of your own organization so people can decide, at any age, if the culture is right for them. I have on more than one occasion told candidates that working at WeSpire is just not a 9 – 5 job, given the global nature of our clients. We are extremely flexible and don’t expect crazy hours, but you might be on calls at 7am or 8pm. Employees of all ages appreciate the flexibility, respect, trust and the clarity.

We have ten more years of four generations in the workplace to benefit from the diverse gifts and talents that all of us bring to work. Every generation has its flaws, but quelling generation-based fears frees us all up to focus, together, on building a better working world.

Quote of the Week: “If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”

Charles M. Schulz