The questioning voice

Penny de Valk argues that L&D have an important role in multi-generational management

With the Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 20301 report by UKCES highlighting that the number of economically active people aged 65 and over is predicted to increase by one third over the next decade, and with four generations due to be working together in one workplace, we need to consider how to manage such a seismic shift in the way we work. The talent pool could include those aged 18-80, and clearly there is no place for discrimination in the workplace – but does that mean managers should be treating all employees the same way, regardless of their age? Or do they need to be adapting to get the best out of a diverse and multi-generational workforce?

Research by Penna found that nearly half of managers (49 per cent) said they tend to take exactly the same approach to management with all of their employees – regardless of age. And of those who don’t change their management style, almost half (46 per cent) said they would consider adapting it if they encountered challenges managing a particular age group. This shows that their approach tends to be reactive rather than proactive, only adapting when faced with a challenge rather than instinctively changing their style.

The research, conducted amongst 1,000 managers and 1,000 employees, also found that for managers who are not currently adapting their style for different aged employees, almost half (46 per cent) say they don’t need to as they are confident in their management skills, regardless of age differences within their team.

But is their confidence in their abilities reflected in those they manage? It appears not, as more than one in three employees (39 per cent) agreed it was important for managers to change their style, as they feel different employee ages will be more responsive as a result. There is clearly a disparity here between how managers feel they should be managing their employees, versus how their employees want to be managed – and there is a role for learning and development professionals to help bridge the gap.

 Stereotyping and generalising

A starting point for learning and development professionals is to encourage managers to actually find out from employees what they want from their career, then identifying management styles and approaches which would support their development and unlock potential. It’s important professionals ensure that managers aren’t generalising with particular age groups and assume that all employees aged 20-25, for example, want daily feedback and are motivated in the same way. Learning and development professionals can help managers move away from any generalist approaches, giving them confidence in their ability to align different styles with individual employees.

We all need to be aware of the unconscious bias we come to our working relationships with; and learning and development professionals can help managers to establish whether they  hold particular opinions on employees based on their age group, to tackle just this. While popular age groupings (Gen Y, Gen C, Baby Boomers etc) may give rough indicators as to the era someone grew up in, and their associated expectations and personality attributes, Penna’s latest research is actually finding these broad brush generalisations to be more of a hindrance than help in many cases.

For example, more than a third (34 per cent) of 55–65-year-olds said they wanted their development potential to be recognised through receiving informal praise and recognition – whereas managers are most likely to describe 18–24-year-olds as the group seeking this out from their manager. If managers have preconceived opinions about what they think people expect or want, they risk disengaging employees and losing talent.

Older workforce

Leaving 55–65-year-olds to get on with the job at hand for example, assuming they don’t want to progress their career further or receive feedback on how they are doing, could serve to frustrate, disappoint and disengage them. With the Business In The Community (BITC) report2 also finding that 31 per cent of people aged between 50 and 64 who lost their jobs found work again, compared to 38 per cent of those aged 16 to 29, it seems that the older generation may be facing a catch-22 age discrimination situation in both securing opportunities while in work and again when job hunting.  

Managers play a crucial role in breaking this bias and ensuring that development opportunities are given to all employees – regardless of age. Discussing if and how they’d like to develop is central to this, engaging with employees about what they’d like to achieve in the future and agreeing a plan of action on how to get there.

One business that is seeking to tackle the fallout of older people in the workforce is Barclays. They have recently launched an apprenticeship scheme for the over-50s, giving older workers an opportunity to start a new career in banking. Recognising their potential, the bank understands the value of having older people in the workforce – as they will have skills and experiences that their younger apprentice colleagues, typically aged 16-24, may not have. Elaborating further, Mike Thompson, Barclays head of apprenticeships explains3: “Older people have more life experience, and can show more empathy. They will have had a mortgage, they will know how to budget and how to support customers.” The new over-50’s apprenticeship scheme taps into the shift in the labour market age demographic, maximises existing talent and skills and also takes advantage of the older workforce’s desire to maintain their learning.

Despite the obvious benefits that organisations can reap from keeping older employees engaged and investing in their development, our research shows that managers appear to be focusing their efforts on the younger generations. Almost a quarter of managers (24 per cent) said they would set more challenges for 18–24-year-olds, compared to 17 per cent saying they would set more challenges for employees aged 55-65. Equally, three in ten managers said they are most likely to look out for development potential among 25–34-year-olds. Clearly, managers that only consider younger employees to be ambitious and seeking out challenges should re-evaluate their viewpoint as they could be overlooking individuals with huge potential in the process.

Younger workforce

But is simply setting challenges for younger employees and offering them promotions the best way to engage them either? Not necessarily, according to our research. Just as managers shouldn’t make sweeping generalisations about older workers, they should also be mindful of assumptions they might make about younger members of their workforce, or Gen Y as they are often referred to (18–34-year-olds). For example, nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of employers believe that one of the most important ambitions for Gen Y is to have experienced lots of different jobs and sectors and a fifth (20 per cent) think they’re motivated by wanting to be a manager and lead their own team. But for employees in Gen Y – both the 18–24-year-old and 25–34-year-old categories surveyed – work-life balance and a sense of fulfilment rank far higher on the long term priority lists.

So managers may be looking for all opportunities available for Gen Y to lead and manage their own teams, or get plentiful experiences within different areas of the business to keep them engaged, when actually this may not be what drives them at all. Instead, finding out what makes them tick and gaining an understanding of what they enjoy about their role will help managers to direct employee learning and development efforts more effectively.

Learning and development professionals can support managers here again, by teaching them how to hold such conversations with employees. Listening is an underestimated communication skill, as it allows professionals to gain an understanding of what drives and motivates a person – which then facilitates a shared understanding that both parties can agree upon. Utilising their knowledge of the business, managers can then support with actively seeking development opportunities in line with individual expectation that meets a
commercial need.

The risk of not listening properly to employees is clear, as we see with the example of Sarah on p19. Excellent talent can go to waste, which so easily could have been avoided. Had managers listened to her and acted upon her feedback, the business may not be in the situation where they have an employee who has mentally checked out and looking for a new job. Rather than making age-based assumptions that development is no longer desired, or being inflexible in looking at other options such as stepping sideways in the business if there is no current room at the top, the business may be losing a loyal, valuable and skilled employee. 

Age group similarities

It is worth recognising that despite the workplace now being home to multiple generations, there are established practices in many organisations which are considered to make a widespread positive impact on employees of all ages. When asked which initiative their organisation currently runs which has the most positive impact across all age groups, flexible working ranked the most highly (33 per cent). When asked what initiative their company currently doesn’t run that would make the most positive impact across all age ranges, flexible working again was the number one choice (25 per cent). Giving people of all ages more control over where and how they work, meeting both individual and business needs, is a powerful driver of engagement and discretionary energy – the primary drivers of both retention and productivity. 

All of this points to the ability of managers to have development and performance conversations constantly with all generations. Our research found that employees believe the most important qualities in a manager are approachability (50 per cent), honesty (48 per cent) and the ability to motivate and inspire teams (37 per cent). If nothing else, managers should be ensuring they either demonstrate their abilities and attributes in these areas, or that they are provided with support in developing them.

Other qualities employees value in managers are: good communication skills (34 per cent); integrity and trustworthiness (24 per cent); and fairness (23 per cent). These qualities are often taken as a given, with managers either possessing them or not. However, learning and development professionals can provide real support here – ensuring that their managers think about displaying such skills and helping where they may need to improve them.

L&D next steps

So what does this mean for learning and development professionals overall? In short, the research has shown us that managers may be treating employees with a one-size-fits-all model, but employees are clearly demonstrating that this is neither working nor desired. There is huge pressure on managers in business, but by not engaging with their employees more effectively through tailoring their approach means they may be missing a trick.

Rather than relying on outdated generalisations, managers need to learn how to bend and flex their styles – but in a way that feels comfortable to them and is authentic to those they are leading. Learning and development professionals can help managers to unlock some of the tools they can deploy to do this. For example, understanding what drives and motivates individuals.

Challenging unconscious bias they hold around age groups may need to be tackled too and learning and development professionals will need to be the questioning voice. If the next round of training to be offered internally seems geared at 25–34-year-olds, challenge managers to consider why this is and what they are offering other age groups by way of development. It will help challenge the status quo and the limitations that traditional ways of working can often pervade an organisation. This in turn will enable businesses to get the best out of all employees, working with their drivers and goals.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.


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