Leading multigenerational projects and surviving!

Wallace Johnson, PMP, Sr.

Consultant, Deloitte Consulting LLP

In this 21st century, the multigenerational workforce is the norm. The project team dynamic has changed. Leaders and project managers (PMs) need to stay sharp. A leader should embrace diversity, blend team members’ strengths, and produce the project team of the “NOW”! This paper deals with understanding, engaging, and using the strengths available in multigenerational project teams.

In order for a PM to be a better project leader, he or she should learn new behaviors to lead or be a part of a multigenerational project team. In order to effectively manage a multigenerational project team and exceed business goals, the project leader should hone his or her business skill set by adding “inclusive” behaviors. A project leader can learn to understand and appreciate the value brought by team members of various ages. Many teams have tensions, often caused by generational differences, but a “good” PM chooses to understand the multigenerational dynamics, risks, issues, and opportunities they create. This paper will attempt to identify the different generations’ strengths and challenges. With this knowledge, the leader can better engage the different generational groups. A PM equipped with this information can embrace this diversity and forge a collaborative multigenerational project team.

Introduction

Welcome to the era where the multigenerational workforce is the norm (Dwyer, 2009, p. 101). Our project teams are and will be staffed with people of multiple age groups. On your next project, it's possible that your project team will be staffed with members from four or maybe even five generations. Increasingly, more differences in the values, communication styles, and work habits of individuals have increased the project team dynamic (Fallon, 2014). Each of these distinct age groups comes with its own generational differences, which has the potential to cause friction in and around the project team. As the project manager, are you ready to lead them?

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (Project Management Institute, 2013) states, “the project team includes the project manager and the group of individuals that act together in performing the work of the project to achieve its objectives” (p. 36). This paper will focus on “the group of individuals” who are selected from the multigenerational workforce. For the purposes of this paper, we will use the PMBOK® Guide definition and create a new term, multigenerational project team (MGPT). The MGPT is comprised of people from a variety of age groups. This makes multigenerational project teams the new norm in the project management community. According to much academic research (Meister & Willyerd, 2009), these multiple generations can be grouped and labeled as:

  1. Traditionalists [born prior to 1946],
  2. Baby Boomers [born between 1946 and 1964],
  3. Generation X [born between 1965 and 1976],
  4. Millennials [born between 1977 and 1997], and
  5. Generation 2020 [born after 1997].

Multigenerational workforces are here and they are not going away. Understanding what drives each generation is a step toward ensuring the project team's achievements and possible project risk mitigation. With these generational interactions, the project team dynamic has changed. Each generation has different life experiences, learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, and technology “comfort levels” (Couglin, 2012).

The project leader should also seek to understand how each generation wants to contribute. One team member may wish to “wind down” (preparing to retire) while another is looking to lead. Project leaders should be able to understand, motivate, and manage all generations. A leader, no matter his or her age, should understand how the different generations think in order to keep them productive and effective. This may require the leader to do some after-hours research (Deloitte, 2015).

If the MGPT can achieve collaboration, the place where each member of the team realizes, “we are making ourselves better by working together,” then the team wins and possibly the project will succeed, too. The leader should be open to the talent of others, to be inspired by and challenged by the team's talent (or hidden potential). The leader should believe and thus inspire the team to do amazing things that he or she knows only a team (this multigenerational team) can accomplish. This paper discusses the possibility of turning a multigenerational workforce into a collaborating, high-performing, multigenerational project team.

Multigenerational Workforce

Let's look deeper into the workforce of multigenerational individuals and their age groups. According to the World Health Organization, men and women who are healthy at 60 will, on average, be physically capable of working until they are 74 and 77, respectively. Combine these statistics (see Exhibit 1) and the newest employees entering the workforce might not be joining their parents or grandparents, they might be joining their great-grandparents (Meister & Willyerd, 2009). It's possible that the readers of this paper will see four of the five generations working next to them on their project teams.

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Exhibit 1: Five generations in the workplace (Meister & Willyerd, 2009).

Caroline Dowd-Higgins (2013) has collected the following additional detailed characteristics of the generations (except the Traditionalists) and lists of their common attributes/stereotypes:

Baby Boomers are identified as the post–World War II babies who are just now hitting retirement age. The first generation to be raised with television, they were considered technologically advanced in their youth. Described as social and political rabble-rousers, the Boomers came of age during the civil rights movement, the antiwar demonstration era of Vietnam, and a sexual revolution that accompanied the popularity of rock ‘n’ roll. Boomers are not all retiring in their 60s, and many have experienced entrepreneurial success due to their connections and wealth. Boomer career success was demonstrated by trying new things and an ability to bob and weave during times of economic fluctuation. Work-centric, the Boomers are extremely hardworking and are motivated by rank, wealth, and prestige. They invented the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” and defined their generation by professional accomplishments and long work hours. Commitment and loyalty to their company was demonstrated, even if that required obligatory face time. Goal oriented and competitive, Boomers are confident and ready to challenge well-established practices to make a better mousetrap. Since their companies did extend loyalty to employees, they believe in the hierarchical ladder and earning opportunities for advancement within a single organization. The concept of job flexibility and working from home is foreign to them because they were raised to believe that work should be done in the workplace.

Generation X was the first to experience a large percentage of divorce among their parents and working moms during their formative years. This created a generation of individuals who own their independence, resilience, and adaptability. They feel strongly that they don't need supervision or micromanaging to get the job done. Generation Xers are multiculturally aware and comfortable in diverse work environments. They are practical and enjoy a “work hard/play hard” philosophy in their careers. Many of them faced first jobs in the 1980s during an economic downturn, and they witnessed their parents getting laid off or struggling with job insecurity. The traditional career ladder of upward mobility in one organization became unavailable to them, so they created a workaround to be more fluid in their career trajectory. They reinvented the definition of loyalty and remain committed to their work, but because organizations did not extend loyalty to them, they take employability very seriously and climb the career lattice moving laterally based on opportunity.

Millennials are the most educated and culturally diverse generation in the workforce today. They tend to be zigzaggers, hopping from job to job and distrusting bureaucracy. Millennials crave work opportunities with meaning where they can feel like part of the organizational mission, and they often value helping those in need more than a fat paycheck. They were educated with a focus on community and service learning, and they value those things in their workplace. Extremely tech-savvy, the Millennials identify the concept of work/life balance as their top professional value. Research shows they will sacrifice pay for more vacation time or a flexible schedule, and they crave recognition. In 2014 the Millennials comprised 36% of the workforce, and by 2020, they will represent nearly half of those working.

Generation 2020 represents the next frontier of people who are now entering the workforce. Their work styles have yet to be defined, but here are some things to keep in mind if you have kids born into this generation:

  • Gen 2020s will experience “Velcro Parenting,” where the amount of time they spend with their kids will reach new heights.
  • Gen 2020s will experience more significant parental unemployment.
  • Gen 2020 kids will spend less time playing outside and more time indoors with structured activities.
  • Gen 2020s will live by their iTunes apps and games.
  • Gen 2020s won't have to argue with their parents to get a cell phone.

The chart in Exhibit 2 shows the results of a study based on age and well-being. Many studies show that as people age in later life, they become happier. “A 2010 study of more than 340,000 US adults found that overall feelings of contentment and satisfaction with life peaked in the golden years. It seems that 40's and 50's are the worst ages. It seems four major factors affect happiness: Age, Gender, Personality and External Circumstances” (Stone, 2010, p. 22).

img

Exhibit 2: Well-being score graph (Stone, 2010).

These factors of happiness can help the project leader understand him- or herself and also aid in understanding the members of the team. Understanding what makes a team member “happy” is an enabler to help the leader find the right ways to motivate and inspire the team.

Project Leaders

Project leaders will need to have new approaches—i.e., behaviors to address the issues that come with the inclusion and diversity of five generations. For project managers or project leaders, there's no “cookie-cutter” approach that will let them communicate within and outside the team. Each of the five defined groups in today's workplace has a different communication style that defines it. Their communication styles are created by world events, family influences, educational backgrounds, and entertainment influences (Brooks, 2007). As project leaders learn to understand each generation, they will find keys to leading, blending, and molding the MGPT. One of the keys to finding valuable and high-performing individuals involves the ability to look past labels and stereotypes. The leader should consider looking under, behind, around, or over the inherent issues of the MGPT dynamic. If they seek, they will find valuable, contributing, individuals. Equipped with the applicable behaviors, the leader can forge a high-quality, high-performing collective.

It is too late to hide our heads in the sand. It takes a conscious effort to distinguish your own talents and not let preconceived notions have the upper hand. Leaders may first get to know the members of their MGPT via their labels and stereotypes. Traditionalists may be labeled “early faders”; Baby Boomers may be labeled as that group looking to leave a legacy (or preparing for early retirement); Generation Xers may be labeled as “ready to lead but no followers”; Millennials may be labeled as “the techno-savvy, game players” (Deloitte, 2015); and the Gen 2020s may be labeled as “the new kids, still wet behind the ears” (just now entering the marketplace). Let's not forget that the project leader is also part of the equation. Einstein (n.d.) once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” A good leader should not play to stereotypes or labels; he or she should press through to the higher goal. If you stop at the label, you may lose a valuable resource or a valuable lesson. This can be learned by looking at the life of Steve Jobs:

Wunderkind. Jerk. Innovator. Tyrant. (All of the above.) Even now, almost four years after his death, it's hard to read a story about Steve Jobs that doesn't rely on these kinds of generic labels to explain his character, that doesn't paint him as an obstreperous ingrate who never changed, who cowed coworkers and competitors with an almost magical “reality distortion field.” It's a strange phenomenon, given the extraordinary story of his life: A callow businessman, a young college dropout whose behavior was so divisive and undisciplined that he was exiled in 1985 from the company he founded, turns around and becomes the radically effective visionary leader of a company that became the most valuable enterprise on earth. Surely this can't be explained by a set of stereotypes that haven't changed for three decades. (Tetzeli, 2015, p.76)

Don't feed the stereotype; seek to understand it. Possibly learn from it, apply the positive aspects, and change. This is another attribute that was observed in Steve Jobs’ life:

Steve was someone with a deep hunger for learning, who breathed in an education wherever he could find it, from his youthful pilgrimage to India to his key mentors and his longtime colleagues at NeXT, Pixar, and Apple. Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs widow) goes so far as to call him a “learning machine.” He learned from his many failures and relentlessly applied those lessons. This wasn't an obvious process—Steve always preferred to talk about the future rather than the past, so there are very few examples of him reflecting on his triumphs and missteps, or acknowledging a lesson learned. But like most of us, he tried to use what he learned to take better advantage of his strengths and temper his weaknesses. It was a lifelong effort, and, like most of us, he succeeded in some ways and failed in others. Steve was always changing. (Tetzeli, 2015, p. 77)

A team bond can be forged, but it will take a leader who believes in something bigger than self and bigger than the project objectives. The leader should see the team collaborating in his or her heart (mind) before seeing them collaborating in the conference room. That belief, “a vision of a collaborating team” can bridge the generation gap. The leader's belief in the potential of the team may make him or her approachable. Armed with belief, the leader can produce a living, performing project team of multigenerationals.

Performing Project Teams Comprised of Multigenerations

Vickberg (2015) says, “I think great leadership is about creating environments that both empower and compel people to make their very best contribution. But since not everyone is empowered or compelled by the same environment, the trick is to understand what different people need and to provide them with the right kind of space to excel.” Allowing and acknowledging workforce diversities can help us encourage interaction in a more productive manner. It is important to define expectations and hold all the generations accountable. Diversity has to be managed, thus creating an environment for employees to recognize and accept generational differences when confronted. If nurtured, the MGPT is likely to result in a stable project team.

For leaders, a good way to approach multigenerational issues is to allow individuals to work in the style they prefer and acknowledge the efforts of each team member, regardless of their work style or age. Many of the best leaders recognize these nuances, forget stereotypes, and champion the similarities. Many of the most effective leaders will find ways of letting each different generation be heard. The 2015 Women's World Cup winning team also demonstrates a critical attribute, trust, that a project leader should create and model. Longman (2015) wrote an article in The New York Times featuring Coach Jill Ellis described her coaching style as “connecting on a personal level with her players to build trust, though not at the expense of honesty or the collective needs of the team.” Ellis was quoted as saying, “At my very first meeting I said I will connect with you, but I will always make decisions based on what I think is best for the team.” The story also noted that “Ellis held one-on-one meetings with team leaders during the tournament, asking their opinions.” Quotes from players in the article mentioned that she actually incorporated some of the players’ suggestions.

I believe it would be possibly good to modify Bruce Tuckman's (2005) stages of group development theory and apply it to multigenerational teams:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

In the Forming stage of MGPT building, forming the project begins. The leader should share his or her vision in a gathering with the group. This ‘inclusive’ gathering allows the team to learn about the opportunities and challenges of the project. The team can agree on goals and begin to tackle the tasks. Team members tend to behave according to their “generational background.” The leader should share about the benefits that each generation brings to the project and the team. The leader should be actively listening and seeking. The forming stage of a team is important because this is when the members of the team get to know the leaders and one another, and begin to observe differences. It is important at this early phase for the leader to be secure enough to openly and freely communicate his or her view of each generation. As soon as he or she has begun to identify individual strengths, he or she should begin to solicit feedback from those individuals.

In the Storming stage of MGPT building, initial trust must be developed. Acceptance and appreciation of all team members and their generational differences should be emphasized. This phase can be a long one because it is really focused on team members; it rests on the environment that the leader can foster. This is probably the longest of the four phases. The patience and belief of the leader can be severely tested. This is a good time for one-on-one conversations. The leader may be used as a sounding board or an interpreter of the various team members’ generational communication styles and values. Generational tensions, misunderstandings, and arguments should be expected in this stage.

In the Norming stage of MGPT building, the “surviving” multigenerational project team members take responsibility and are proactively blending. The team is not distracted by their differences but focused on their strengths and the project's objectives. They collectively believe that they are better together than separate. They have learned the values and communication styles of their peers and are using their energies to build and not destroy. The danger here is that members may be so focused on preventing conflict that they are reluctant to share controversial ideas.

In the Performing stage of MGPT building, the team is performing as a unit. The leader has forged a collaborative, performing unit and is free to delegate. The leader is free to share his or her fears from stage one. The team is free to innovate and show its full strength. The team has a greater weight in decisions. Now that the team has arrived, it is not time to coast. It is time to identify the leaders, delegate, and begin to gather the lessons learned and get ready for the next team.

Summary

Of course, it's helpful to know how to manage people at different ages—in fact, it is not only helpful but applicable and profitable. People have different needs at various points in their lives. In an article written by A. Gallo he states, “Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at The Wharton School, has studied the research done on Millennials and says, ‘Young people today will stand on their heads to get a job. Why do we think we have to manage them differently?' To him, managing people based solely on their age is biased. People have lots of qualities that make them distinct: race, gender, background. Don't stereotype. Instead of assuming that the Millennials on your team need special treatment, get to know each person individually. ‘Keep an awareness in the back of your mind that some things are due to age, which is true for older workers too, but what you're observing might have something to do with other things, like ethnic background.’ And in researching for his (Peter Cappelli) book Managing the Older Worker, he learned that teams that incorporate different aged workers perform better. ‘It's smart to have young people and older people work together. They don't see each other as competition and are more likely to help each other.’ (Gallo, 2014)”.

Project leaders will need to learn new behaviors to be part of a multigenerational project team. These behaviors will help establish a multigenerational winning mindset. Thus, the project manager will not only survive but will lead during his or her multigenerational project engagement.

Key Takeaways

The following is a non-exhaustive list of actions/behaviors that can help equip a leader and his team:

For leaders:

  • Be able to learn and apply “inclusive” behaviors
  • For leaders, develop and communicate a clear mission.
  • For leaders, believe in the potential of the team.
  • For leaders, be relatable.
  • For leaders, be approachable.
  • For leaders, look past labels and stereotypes to find value in the team.
  • For leaders, take the advice of your mentors.
  • For leaders, allow individuals to work in the style they prefer.
  • For leaders, acknowledge the efforts of each team member.
  • For leaders, ask and listen to the team members’ suggestions.
  • For leaders, actively look for ways to incorporate the team's suggestions.

For team members:

  • Don't limit yourself to the generational stereotypes.
  • Don't limit yourself to age-based assumptions.
  • Be open and flexible.
  • Believe in the potential of the team.
  • Value the other members of the team.

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Deloitte. (2015). Mind the Gaps, 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey Report. DTTL Global Brand and Communications. Retrieved from http://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/2015-millennial-survey-press-release.html

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Stone, A. (2010, June). A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States (chart). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 107, p. 22.

Tetzeli, R. (2015, April). The real legacy of Steve Jobs. Fast Company, 194(4), 72–76.

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© 2015, Deloitte Development LLC. All rights reserved
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA

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