Generational Diversity in the Workplace: Great Divide or Key to Innovation?


By John Wright

Innovation is the key to business sustainability and growth – and ultimately, to its success. It can be focused on process improvement and emerging need, or it may be focused on market opportunity. In today’s competitive world, organizations need to implement improvements and find ways to differentiate their offerings on an ongoing basis.

However, with four – and in some cases up to five – different generations working side-by-side, workforce dynamics are not only changing, they may also present new challenges and opportunities. Different generations in the workplace today may include Traditionalists (68-86 years old), Baby Boomers (49-67 years old), Gen X (33-48 years old), Gen Y (18-32 years old), and the emerging Millennials (born 1996 or later).

Generalizing Generational Uniqueness
Each generation has unique qualities that influence their role in the workplace.

  • Traditionalists are defined as hard working and formal. This generation viewed their careers as life-changing opportunities and worked hard to ensure they met the expectations of their employers. They are formal, maintain professional relationships and work according to the rules, they like routine and process.
  • Baby Boomers are dependable and like to foster close business relationships. This generation grew up in an age when people stood up for their rights and made societal changes to ensure life was fair and equitable for all. They enjoy and facilitate an environment where everyone’s voices can be heard. They are also interested in sharing their experience and in leaving their mark on the organization.
  • Gen Xs are independent and seek flexibility in the workplace. They were the first generation to grow up in single-parent families or in families in which both parents worked. This group ventures into more entrepreneurial type of work activities and they like to put work-life balance at the forefront of their priorities.
  • Gen Ys are technologically savvy and collaborative. They grew up in a digital world, went through school that was team-oriented, and they were raised in environments that provided constant praise. This group is confident in their knowledge and abilities, and they have a “you don’t ask, you don’t get” mentality.
  • Gen Zs have a remarkable ability to process vast amounts of information in little time. They also have a strong team orientation and their approach to socializing is technology-driven. They are just entering the workforce, so research is still emerging about this new generation.

Each generation brings different needs, values and perspectives to the workplace. This in turn impacts what they need to be satisfied, loyal, aligned and involved with their organizations – and ultimately, how they can be encouraged to contribute new ideas and to embrace an innovative culture.

Building a Better Workplace
Last year, Canadian Management Centre (CMC) partnered with IPSOS Reid to conduct a nation-wide engagement study of 1,200 employees in Canada across various sectors ranging from banking to financial services to tourism and leisure. The resulting Build a Better Workplace report, took a comprehensive look at the Canadian employee population and included a detailed analysis of their perceptions that impact job satisfaction and engagement at work.

At CMC, the definition of employee engagement is “how each employee connects and aligns (emotionally and intellectually) with your company and your customers”.

The research found that only 27 per cent of the Canadian workforce was highly engaged, which means 73 per cent of our workforce can be striving to do better. Younger employees were less engaged and the most engaged were Traditionalists, who make up 7 per cent of the workforce.

In contrast, Generation X and Y combined represent 56 per cent of the workforce, but only an average of 28 per cent would consider themselves to be highly engaged. There is clearly work to be done from an organizational standpoint around engaging the generations.

Managing Innovative Expectations
According to the same research, when it comes to fostering innovation in the workplace, more than half of Canadian employees—58 per cent—feel that their manager encourages new ideas. Among the generations, Traditionalists ranked lowest at 51 per cent, Gen X at 55 per cent, Baby Boomers at 58 per cent and Gen Y at 61 per cent.

When asked whether their manager is willing to try new ways of doing business, 55 per cent of Canadians agreed with this statement. In this instance, Baby Boomers and Gen Y were the most satisfied at 57 per cent, followed by Traditionalists at 54 per cent and lastly, Gen X was below the average at 51 per cent.

Having insights into the reasons for generational behaviours can help to provide a better perspective of why employees respond the way they do, and which engagement drivers need to be focused on for each group to set the stage for innovation.

In all cases, the direct manager has the greatest impact and ability to influence employee engagement, so it is up to leaders to adapt their approach depending on the individual needs and motivations for each employee. As a key organizational driver, fostering innovation helps to promote a culture of engagement; conversely, innovation and new ideas can’t flourish without engaged employees.

XY Guides to Engagement
Focusing on the two largest generations in the workplace, here are some ways organizations can help promote a culture of engagement to foster innovation.

Gen X

  • Work to build trust. This generation looks for meaningful relationships with their leaders. Finding ways to show that you trust them will make them feel empowered as individuals.
  • Involve them by asking for their input and suggestions. When Gen Xers feel like their ideas are being heard, they feel valued by their leaders and their teams.
  • Accommodate lifestyle requests where possible. This generation appreciates balance and independence—and they work well on their own. When trusted to do their work, they may request alternate or flexible working schedule to accommodate their lifestyle. If it’s within reason for your business, consider accommodating these requests to show you care about them as people, not just employees.
  • Show them that their ideas are valued and create opportunities for them to influence outcomes.
  • Empower and enable. Ensure your Generation X employees have what they need to do their jobs sufficiently. Ask if they need anything and provide additional resources. When employees feel empowered and enabled, they are more engaged and more interested in their careers with your organization.

Gen Y

  • Help them understand what their future can look like with the organization. This generation is interested in immediate opportunities and benefits.
  • Create development opportunities and plans. Gen Ys want to learn and to know their company sees value in their development. With a clear plan and a visible investment, they will feel more attached to the organization.
  • Show interest in them as an individual. These days, young professionals have more than a job. They have outside projects, volunteer activities and even small businesses on the side.
  • Appreciate their contribution and demonstrate their value to the team. Knowing they are valued—and that their value is recognized by others—will keep this generation motivated to keep getting recognition. They will want to help you if they know their contributions are recognized.

Engaging Generational Differences
Organizations can leverage the unique strengths of each generation when they are assembling their teams. For example, if you’re looking to identify more ‘out-of-the-box’ style ideas, then ensure that your team is stacked with Gen Ys. If you want to adopt best practice models from your industry or others, then include more Gen Xs. If it’s important that your solutions or ideas need to align with established organizational processes or systems, then you should look at having a Traditionalist on board.

Another consideration is to recognize that some generations prefer to work in teams, such as Gen Y, while Gen Xs are more independent thinkers. You can also start the innovation process with tech savvy free thinkers such as the Gen Ys, and then transition the team to include Baby Boomers who can bring their experience and act as sounding boards to vet for “realistic” ideas.

At the same time, when you include different generations in the the mix, you also need to be aware of thinking approaches that may clash when brainstorming. For example, Gen X likes to generate ideas independently, whereas Gen Y prefers to collaborate and think out loud. Traditionalists prefer to stay within the boundaries of organizational processes, which might frustrate Gen Ys who are considered to be more free thinking.

Inspiring Innovation
If innovation is an important strategy for your organization’s growth, it needs to be established within the business plan, communicated from the top down and integrated into the culture. Employees who want to make a meaningful difference in the organization need to be encouraged to contribute their ideas in their day-to-day roles, as well as for enterprise initiatives.

To be successful over the long-term, organizations need to create an environment that enables employees to tap into their creative thoughts and put their innovative ideas forward. Employees should also be supported with development opportunities that encourage creativity and innovation through involvement on cross-functional teams, conference attendance and professional membership connections.

At the end of the day, individuals—across all generations—need to feel satisfied, aligned, involved and loyal before they will give their best to their employer. Leaders need to get to know the needs and expectations of each of their employees in order to provide the opportunities that will keep them engaged and inspire innovation.

John Wright is the president and managing director of Canadian Management Centre ( based in Toronto.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2013)

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