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Creating a Responsive Organizational Culture by Balancing a Multigenerational Workforce

Abstract picture representing diversity in the workplace and a multigenerational workforce

This article originally appeared in Lēad Magazine, Issue 14: The Search for Balance.

By Adwoa K. Buahene and Giselle Kovary, Co-founders and Managing Partners, n-gen People Performance, Inc.

Today, more so than ever, the implications of a multigenerational workplace are felt across recruitment, retention, and engagement practices. Getting the balance right in responding to and managing the expectations of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Ys is essential to productivity and performance. Organizations struggle with integrating Gen Xers and Gen Ys, while trying not to alienate more experienced generations. This is particularly true because most organizational cultures are founded on Traditionalist and Baby Boomer values, behaviours, and expectations. Leaders must respect that people are part of the capital of their organizations, and as such, human capital risk needs to be managed like any other type of financial or operational risk. Organizations need to be strategic in viewing the modernizing of their organizational cultures as a change initiative. The goal is to maximize the skill sets of all four generations, while managing the differences.

Human capital risk management involves much more complex challenges than simply overcoming the obstacles of an aging workforce and small labour pool. A finer analysis reveals that an organization’s inherent diversity impacts its ability to recruit, retain, and engage employees. A lot of work has been done to recognize and positively harness gender and ethnic diversity. However, another layer of analysis is required. In today’s complex and dynamic market, understanding, embracing, and learning to manage the risks associated with a multigenerational workforce is needed to gain a competitive advantage. In the last 10 years, organizations have moved from raising awareness of generational differences, to actively incorporating a multigenerational perspective into the planning and execution of human resources and operational strategies.

Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Ys are classified as four distinct cohorts based on demography and sociology. The life-defining, socio-economic, historical, and technological events – which the members of each cohort experienced – bind them together, resulting in similar values, behaviours, and expectations. Leaders often mistakenly believe that because one cohort expresses a particular value in a certain way, the other cohorts don’t possess that same value. For example, since Traditionalists demonstrate long-term loyalty to an organization, Gen Xers and Gen Ys are often judged as disloyal when they are not willing to devote their entire career to one organization. Or, the fact that Baby Boomers are renowned for working long hours means that Gen Xers and Gen Ys must not possess a work ethic since they generally won’t commit to the same number of hours consistently without a direct return on their time invested. To fully understand the generations, and how each cohort inherently adds risk to the workplace, organizations must deepen their understanding of how the four generations impact workplace performance.

Multigenerational Table

Balancing and creating a responsive culture that maximizes the skill sets of all four generations, while managing their differences, cannot be achieved by changing HR policies or leadership practices ad hoc. Rather, it requires a strategic focus that is planned, executed, and treated as a change management initiative that is given the same importance of any other operational change. Change management demands that leaders incorporate the building blocks that are required for positive change (engage, communicate, manage, and support), and possess the ability to lead others successfully through change (undoing, learning, and locking-in new behaviours). The most successful way to create a responsive culture is to follow a change management process while implementing practices that engage a multigenerational workforce. Next, we highlight two key components to balancing a multigenerational workforce – creating an engaging workplace and performance management.

Creating an engaging workplace

The most engaging workplaces execute on the principles of:

  • Flexibility
  • Empowerment
  • Recognition
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Trust
  • Cross-functional collaboration
  • Fun at work

Since your organization is comprised of varying percentages of each generation, or is mainly comprised of two or three generations, consider how you can incorporate a combination of these elements to create a unique environment that motivates, engages, and propels your workforce forward. There is no one‑size‑fits‑all combination; operational, industry, and regulatory factors will influence the creation of the right environment for your business. However, it is important to recognize that what it means to successfully execute on any one of those elements may be different across the generational cohorts. For example, what constitutes ‘fun at work’ will differ between the more experienced and younger generations. Traditionalists might not even believe that fun should happen at work, since ‘work’ is done during office hours and ‘play’ is done after office hours. Baby Boomers might define ‘fun’ as belonging to an industry networking association, while this wouldn’t appeal to Gen Xers since it still has a work focus. This cohort might see fun as having impromptu parties or being able to work in a casual, relaxed environment. Gen Ys would expect everything to be fun, from casual interactions with their leaders, to being able to work anywhere, anytime, to controlling the look of their workspace, to playing a game in the middle of their day, all while wearing casual clothes.

Performance management

While there is the science of performance management (e.g., the ratings, the process, the results), it is often the art of performance management with which leaders struggle the most. Within the performance management process, leaders are often instructed to hold performance management conversations with their team members. Those conversations need to include the recognition that different generations have different expectations of how their performance should be managed, and it needs to be recognized that each generation will respond differently to these types of conversations. From a generational perspective, each cohort’s

willingness to embrace performance management is based on its comfort level with receiving feedback. Most Traditionalists experienced a work environment where the only performance feedback given was either really good news (‘you’re getting promoted!’), or really bad news, (‘you’re getting fired!’). It can sometimes be difficult for Traditionalists to adapt to the current open approach, since they have been working for many years without any formal performance review process.

Since the widespread use of performance metrics has only occurred in the last decade or so, many Baby Boomers are receiving formal performance reviews mid-way or later in their careers. Historically, their performance was commented on by senior leaders in an informal way. Rewards were often largely based on the subjective perceptions of leaders (who you knew), versus the objective measurement of contribution to business outcomes (what you did). This approach often left strong performers, who didn’t play the political game well, with little acknowledgement or recognition for their contributions. On the flip side, poor performers who were well connected within the organization were allowed to remain, or were even promoted. The performance management process was largely secretive. It didn’t provide employees with a clear understanding of why their performance was above or below standard.

Gen X employees expect to receive feedback on their performance more frequently, on a quarterly or monthly basis. They don’t want to spend a lot of time focusing on what they do well – they already know that. Instead, they want to understand how they can improve; they want to hear constructive feedback on their performance. They need to know how success will be measured and what resources and support will be provided to them. Gen Xers desire this type of feedback because they want to remain marketable. In order to do so, they know they need to continuously
improve, learn, and grow.

Gen Ys are even more eager to receive feedback. They expect to know how they are performing on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis. However, although they have a large appetite for feedback, they are often ill-prepared to receive negative criticism. This cohort has always received positive, self-esteem-building praise by parents, teachers, and coaches. Receiving less than 100% (exceptional) on a performance rating may cause an emotional response in some Gen Ys. Managers should be trained to conduct performance discussions with Gen Ys that highlight developmental opportunities without plummeting motivation and engagement levels. Organizations need to be aware that Gen Ys openly share with their peers their performance ratings and the content of the discussions.


Creating a responsive culture that balances the needs of all four generations means that organizations must evaluate, tweak, and refine HR practices to align with what engages a multigenerational workforce. The more organizations are able to align and manage the expectations of each generational cohort, the more engaged their workforces will become. Creating a responsive culture allows organizations to mitigate the risks associated with multigenerational human capital. As your organization becomes more responsive, your culture will adapt to the changing demographics, resulting in a balance between the expectations of generational employee groups and operational targets.

About the Authors

Adwoa K. BuaheneAdwoa K. Buahene
Managing partner and co-founder of n-gen People Performance, Inc., Adwoa K. Buahene has dedicated the past 10 years to working with private and public sector industry leaders across North America, building strategies and programs that target, motivate, and engage multigenerational workforces. The chair of the United Way Allocations Panel, a member of the executive committee board of VHA Home HealthCare, and a nominee for RBC’s Canadian Women Entrepreneur Trailblazer Award in 2010, Adwoa is also the author of numerous whitepapers and the co-author of two books: How to Get, Keep & Grow All Four Generations and Upgrade Now: 9 Advanced Leadership Skills.

Giselle KovaryGiselle Kovary
Sought after by industry leaders across North America, Giselle is a multigenerational workplace expert who draws on her decade’s worth of research and experiences to help organizations better manage the diverse age groups that make up their workforces. Along with Adwoa Buahene, she is also a managing partner and co-founder of n-gen People Performance, Inc. and the co-author of two books: How to Get, Keep & Grow All Four Generations and Upgrade Now: 9 Advanced Leadership Skills. Nominated in 2010 for RBC’s Canadian Women Entrepreneur Trailblazer award, Giselle is also on the Marketing & Communications Committee for Habitat for Humanity – Toronto.

About Lēad 

Since its first issue in 2007, Adecco Canada’s Lēad Magazine has been keeping employers on the cutting-edge of developments, trends, and breakthroughs in workforce management. Featuring articles from some of Canada’s foremost economic, legal, diversity, political, and HR experts, Lēad is an invaluable guide through the dynamic and ever-changing world of employment affairs. To view past issues, please visit our Lēad archive.

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