Category Archives: Articles

Diversity & Generations

by Claire Raines

This article is an excerpt from Connecting Generations: The Sourcebook by Claire Raines.

Sorting the Cards | Synergism | Stir-Fry | Diversity Interviews at DTE Energy | Generations Interview | Generational Awareness: 10 Bright Ideas | Diversity Awareness: 5 Bright Ideas | Benefits of the Multi-Generation Work Team | Q&A


Generations: a diversity issue. The generation we belong to is one of the many differences we may have with our coworkers. Those differences can cause stress, discomfort, conflict, and frustration. They can also become a source for creativity and productivity.

Sorting the Cards

One of our trainers, Karl Krumm, got me to thinking about generational differences as one of a variety of ways to sort cards. If you had a deck of playing cards in front of you right now, you could sort the cards by suit. You could sort them by color. You could sort them into face cards and numbered cards. You could sort them by numerical value. This metaphor has been helpful to me in how I think about businesspeople and the issues they face. Play along here. If your coworkers were a deck of cards, you could sort that deck in all kinds of ways. You might want to split the deck into two stacks—one for men, one for women. You could separate them according to ethnic background. You might stack the deck according to sexual orientation. You could sort according to coworkers’ countries of origin. You could make sixteen piles that represent the Myers Briggs types.

Karl, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a student of human nature, believes—and I think he’s right—that each time you sorted the cards and then explored the ways the stacks were different from and similar to the others, along with the ways all the cards in a stack were similar to each other, you would get helpful information that would give you valuable insights about every card. Of course, sorting the cards would never give you a picture of the complete person; individual human beings are way too complex for that. But if you’re interested in people and how to work more effectively with them, we’re certain you’ll find the generational sort to be an extremely valuable one. The ability to relate effectively to all types of people is one of today’s essential leadership skills.

To add another metaphor, we can use generational lenses to help us see things we might otherwise not notice. By the way, I don’t personally find that I go around in my own life wearing my generational lenses all, or even most, of the time. The breakdowns and misunderstandings that concern me the most—an endangered friendship, a miscommunication with a family member, a frustrated associate—these generally have little or nothing to do with generational differences.

I have, however, found hundreds of situations in which generational lenses made all the difference. A team I worked with—all Boomers and one Xer—was able to approach work issues from a whole new perspective. A successful trucking company decided they wanted to remain a World War II-style company, even though they probably won’t attract many Gen X recruits. A hospital changed to a more successful fundraising campaign that targeted new young donors. A manager quit trying to impose her values on her younger associates when she realized their customers were unfazed by nose rings and tattoos. A 50-year-old woman developed more empathy for her “military-style” dad. An executive began to understand where his estranged son might be “coming from.”

There are lots of situations that aren’t generational in nature, but then there are plenty that are, too. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep those “generational lenses” handy so they’re available when you need them.


It seems like just a few years ago, most companies in the Western world operated on the model that the best organization was made up of ranks of similar, like-minded people. Orientation sessions and training programs sought to clone the best and brightest existing employees. I remember seeing a couple of surveys that showed the typical interviewer tended to hire the person who was most similar to him- or herself. Some organizations even became known for the same-colored shirts everyone was expected to wear. It was a manufacturing model in which the company was judged on its success at churning out consistent carbon copies of human capital.

Synergism is a term popularized by Buckminster Fuller. Like the principle of yin/yang which has been known for centuries in the Eastern world, synergism recognizes that when we include divergent perspectives, the sum is greater than its parts. That, when a team includes people from various ethnic backgrounds, and all those perspectives are utilized, the team is more effective. That, when the marketing group incorporates people from all the generations, its campaigns are more successful. That, when the executive board includes men and women and listens to both perspectives, the board’s decisions will be more sound.


When it comes to diversity, our nation and most of its businesses have historically operated on the melting pot theory. It was great for forming a country, but it’s time for a new metaphor. After all, when you melt everything down, it gets mixed together and it into a mass of gray sludge. The different groups lose their uniqueness. Everything becomes uniform and we lose that variety of perspectives. Potential goes untapped.

I think it works better to think of corporate diversity as a stir-fry where the cook adds a variety of things—genders, generations, ethnicities. Each retains its uniqueness and contributes flavor to the whole dish. Something wonderful is created that is far tastier, more nutritious, and more interesting than any one part. To lose even one ingredient would diminish the texture and taste.

Today’s most effective organizations don’t just tolerate diversity. They seek it out. They go looking for people of all nationalities, political beliefs, backgrounds, ages, and genders. It’s not always easy, because differences are often thought of negatively, as in, “We’ve had our differences.” Says Tom Crum, “Conflicts can be disastrous or miraculous, depending on how you react to them.”
(The Magic of Conflict, Touchstone Press, 1987) Differences become miraculous when we appreciate them and utilize them. A BP Amoco employee document sums it up: “The diverse people who are BP Amoco will increasingly make our company distinctive by continually challenging how we think, what we do, and how we do it to achieve exceptional business performance.”

Today’s best companies create competitive advantage by becoming employer of choice—by being the company all the best people want to work for. This requires a work culture that recognizes and appreciates a variety of perspectives, styles, and opinions—where differences are sought out, valued, respected, and put to use. Business success requires a workforce that is educated about diversity, where associates have developed their awareness and appreciation for differences and have learned useful skills for bridging the gaps and tapping into the best of everyone.

Interviews at DTE Energy

To broaden their knowledge of the experiences and
beliefs of people from other races and cultures, and to identify ways
to support those people, participants in a class called
Diversity for Leaders at Detroit Edison interview someone of
a race or ethnic group different from their own. They share the
responses—not the names—in their session.

Here are the interview questions:

  1. What do you like about your ethnic group or race?
  2. What do you wish other ethnic groups understood or knew about your group?
  3. Do you feel all your work-related talents and skills are used on the job?
  4. What are the challenges you face at work that may have to do with your race/culture/ethnicity?
  5. What can a company leader, supervisor, or coworker do to support you?

Senior Diversity Specialist Nikki Moss developed the class and the interview format. She shares these excellent tips for expanding your diversity learning experience:

  1. To conduct the interview, treat your interviewee to lunch at a restaurant she feels is representative of her culture.
  2. Ask the interviewee to recommend a museum, business, or art gallery representative of his culture. Consider going there together.
  3. Ask to attend a worship service with her at her place of worship.
  4. Be ambitious and conduct interviews with people from a number of cultures.
  5. Go beyond race and interview someone differently-abled
    than you or someone of a different sexual orientation.

Generations Interview

A similar interview could be conducted with a member of another generation:

  1. What generation do you generally consider yourself to be a member of?
  2. What do you like about your generation?
  3. What do you wish other generations knew or understood about your generation?
  4. Do you feel all your work-related talents and skills are used on the job?
  5. What challenges do you face at work that may have to do with your generation?
  • Successful businesspeople tap into the resources of a diverse workforce.
  • Is there a Generation Xer on your Board of Directors? How about a Millennial?
  • Will many of your best people be retiring in the next few years? Is your process for building “bench strength” under way?
  • Do you have close working relationships with at least one person from each generation?

Generational Awareness: 10 Bright Ideas

  1. Have a Generational Awareness Week. Post icons and photos that represent the generations. Include slang and popular expressions. Play music that was popular in each generation’s formative era.
  2. Write four versions—one for each generation—of an Employee Value
    , a list of what is attractive about working for your organization.
  3. Review your benefits package, asking yourself which generation would likely be most attracted to each…which perks are attractive to all generations.
  4. Come up with three rewards specific to each generation.
  5. Do a generational diversity audit for your
    . What percentage of your workforce is from each generation? Are all the generations represented at all levels?
  6. Review the makeup of your Board of Directors. Are you getting the perspectives of all the generations?
  7. Become an expert on a generation other than your own. Find someone twenty years older—or younger—to teach you about his or her generation: history, characteristics, language, work preferences.
  8. Watch a movie that focuses on a generation other than your own
    (The Big Chill, Reality Bites, Office Space, Saving Private Ryan.) Step into the perspective of one of the characters. How might you see things differently if you were a member of the generation being featured?
  9. Examine a “difference” from both sides. Begin by thinking of a conflict you are having/have had with someone with whom you have generational differences, and with whom you would genuinely like to have a better relationship. Write a brief paragraph about how you see the situation. Put it aside for a few minutes. Then reread what you wrote. Next, re-examine the situation and see if you can step into the other person’s shoes. Finally, write a paragraph that might reveal his or her perspective.
  10. In a management meeting, create profiles of four ideal managers—one for each generation. Then, ask participants to survey five employees each about the type of manager they prefer. In the meeting, discuss your findings and revise the profiles, if necessary. What do all the profiles have in common? Where do they differ? How can your managers apply what they’ve learned?

Diversity Awareness: 5 Bright Ideas

Here are some similar ideas for increasing awareness, empathy, and understanding about other areas of diversity:

  1. Host cultural awareness weeks for all the countries of origin represented in your employee base.
  2. Do a cultural diversity audit for your organization.
  3. Review the makeup of your Board of Directors. Is it representative of your employee base? Of the community you serve?
  4. Become an expert on a culture represented by one of your coworkers.

    Watch a movie that focuses on a culture (ethnicity, country of origin, disability, sexual orientation) other than your own. Get a recommendation from someone representative of that other culture about a movie they’d recommend that would help you better understand their culture.

  • When differences are encouraged, productivity and creativity increase.

Benefits of the Multi-Generation Work Team

  1. The team can attract and retain talented people of all ages.
  2. The team is more flexible.
  3. The team can gain and keep greater market share because its members reflect a multi-generation market.
  4. Decisions are stronger because they’re broad-based.
  5. The team is more innovative.
  6. The team can meet the needs of a diverse public.


Dear Claire,

One of my young employees wants to take time off when he and his wife adopt a baby. I’ve never had a male employee ask for this before. Is this a generational thing?


Dear Jennifer,

I think so. The oldest Baby Boomers were deeply involved in the women’s movement. The next generation tends to have feminist men and women! Many Gen X fathers feel that parenting is a 50/50 deal. I think it’s totally cool that he wants to spend time with the new baby (Easy for me to say when I don’t have to find someone to take his place on the job, isn’t it?). I think we’ll be seeing more and more of this kind of thing.

The Boomers & The Xers

by Claire Raines

For the next three decades, the Boomers and the Xers will find themselves side-by-side in the workplace—and often not with the Boomer in charge. The old order has crumbled: organizations are throwing away the hierarchy, technology is mixing things up, and the information age and service economy are pushing people into nonlinear positions. No longer are executives the oldest, mid-managers the middle-aged, and front-line workers the youngest. The Xers’ technological acuity and business savvy have put hordes of them working side-by-side with their older counterparts. 

Now many Xers are managing the very Boomers who have complained so vociferously about them. In the coming years, some of those in charge will be Xers, some will be Boomers, and lots of folks from both groups will find themselves trying to work together on the same teams.

These two generations have some subtle, but critical, differences. It’s as if the air around them in their formative years was different. Where the Boomers were indulged, the Xers were overlooked; the Boomers had time to "hang out," the Xers have always been pressed for time; the Boomers saw a world of opportunity, the Xers felt forced to adopt a survivor mentality. The Boomers were the first generation to be graded on their report cards for "works with others," the Xers the first generation of latchkey children who were on their own after school and had to learn to rely on themselves.

Therefore, they see the world of work—and each other—a bit differently. Since generational differences are based primarily on assumptions and unconscious criteria, surfacing them takes a giant step towards resolving them. If these two groups are to work together successfully—and, let’s face it, they must—we need to explore these assumptions and perceptions, deepen our understanding of each other, find the commonalties, and develop better ways to communicate and work together. 

What They Say About Each Other

Boomers say Xers…

  • aren’t loyal
  • have no work ethic
  • are not committed
  • are self-focused
  • have no respect

Xers say Boomers…

  • are too political
  • don’t practice what they preach
  • are workaholics
  • need validation
  • are self-righteous

Generational Perspectives

Boomers tend to be more process-oriented, Xers more results-oriented. "The Boomers wear their values on their sleeves," says Dr. Deborah Bender of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. "They were taught they would make a difference in the world, and they are driven by the mission of their organization. To the Xers, though, very little is sacred. They just want to get the job done and get to their lives beyond work. They’ll change jobs – even industries – on the average of seven times in their careers." Dr. Bender says one of the key complaints Xers have about Boomers is their "soft" – some might call it wishy-washy – communication style. Boomers say things like, "I’d love it if you would…." and "You might want to…." Most Xers wish the Boomers would just say, "Here’s what needs to get done…" (One Nike ad says it this way: "Don’t insult our intelligence. Tell us what it is. Tell us what it does. And don’t play the national anthem while you do it.")

What can be done to bridge the gap? Here are some ideas for each group: 

Xers can: 

  1. Show respect for the Boomers. They’ve put in their time. They don’t want to be called "Mr." or "Mrs." or "Sir" or "Ma’am," but they do want to know you respect their experience. 
  2. Take your time. Boomers tend to value the "people side" of business. Take the time to get to know them as human beings who care what you think of them. 
  3. Be friendly. Call Boomers by name – and "check in" with them ("How did your son do at his soccer match?" "How was your ski trip?") 
  4. Choose face-to-face conversation when possible. Sometimes e-mail and voicemail are too impersonal for Boomers.

Boomers can: 

  1. Get to the point. Most Busters prefer a straightforward approach. 
  2. Avoid cliché and hyperbole. Busters feel Boomers give lipservice to concepts like employee involvement and empowerment – and don’t actually do what they say. 
  3. Learn to use technological communication efficiently. Busters say Boomers play phone tag – when they could simply explain on their message what they want/need. Use e-mail when it’s appropriate – not for feedback, for example, but to pass along information. 
  4. When delegating, sketch out the end result, but allow the Buster to figure out how to achieve the result. 

Generational differences are based primarily on assumptions and unconscious criteria. 

Generational Perspectives…


  • Outlook: optimistic 
  • Work Ethic: driven
  • View of Authority: love/hate
  • Relationships: personal gratification
  • Perspective: team


  • Outlook: skeptical 
  • Work Ethic: balanced
  • View of Authority: unimpressed
  • Relationships: reluctant to commit
  • Perspective: individual 

For more on Xers and Boomers:

Generation X Managing Generation X

by Claire Raines

The ranks of supervision and management are filling with members of Generation X – born between 1960 and 1980. Depending on the industry, approximately 30% to 90% of first-line supervisors are in their twenties and thirties. And this generation comprises about 10% of general, district, and corporate management today.

In the service industries, these managers are supervising a group of employees who are mostly members of their own generation. About half of all supervisors and managers will tell you that managing their own cohorts is easy. Because they share the same history, there is empathy—and they understand what makes each other tick. Says Beth Cong, 25, Assistant Manager at the Benetton store in Palo Alto, California, "They’re still young. They listen, and they do what they’re told." The other half finds managing members of their own generation especially challenging. "They’re not like me," some say. "They’re not committed. They don’t show up on time. And they won’t listen." Even those who find managing their cohorts easy admit that most of their employees have a work ethic that differs from their own. Young supervisors and managers have typically "paid their dues" for 6 or 7 years, working long hours and weekends, to get where they are today. 

It’s a bit of a paradox. Managers say their employees are often not willing to put in the hours. At the same time, they don’t understand why they can’t be managers themselves. 
The list of what Generation X supervisors find difficult about managing employees in their late teens, twenties, and even early thirties differs very little from the list older managers cite. They say their young employees often:

  • are not reliable.
  • are not willing to work long hours.
  • think in terms of "job" – not "career."
  • have unrealistic expectations about raises and promotions.

What seems to be a non-issue for Gen X managers is the "credibility gap." You might think, since they are not much older—and, in some cases, are younger than those they supervise— they would have problems establishing authority. But this generally isn’t a problem. Generation Xers tend to consider authority a "whatever" kind of thing anyway. They don’t give their respect to others based just on titles. After all, they grew up watching authority figures (Nixon, Reverend Baker, divorcing parents) become all-too-human, complete with imperfections. Nor do Gen X supervisors expect special treatment based on titles. They fully expect to earn every ounce of respect given them.

Interviews with a number of highly successful Gen-X managers showed they have some common traits that can be helpful to all managers. Consider the following guidelines for recruiting, motivating, and retaining Generation X employees:

  • Avoid judging. When we find that others’ work ethics differ from ours, it is easy to label it "poor" or even "nonexistent." Recognize differences, but don’t judge them. Instead, look for things you have in common. 
  • Accommodate individual needs whenever possible. Beth Cong says, "I’m pretty flexible. If they need to be an hour late, that’s okay. So when I ask for favors (‘Can you come in on your day off?’), they usually help me out." 
  • Demonstrate competence. It is the quickest way to earn the respect of Gen X employees. 
  • Forgive impatience. If your people are anxious for raises and promotions, chalk it up to the energy of youth. Young people have always wanted it NOW. 
  • Be a coworker until someone requires a boss. Evan DeFoe, 28, became a manger at TGI Friday’s in Baltimore when he was 22. Since he had been buddies with his staff for 2 1/2 years, he decided to "do the power trip thing," he says. "I went out of my way to catch people making mistakes. I acted like a boss. But it was unsuccessful. People argued with me, and I made the waitresses cry. Now I’m their co-worker until they ask me to be a boss. I allow people to make their own mistakes and then fix them themselves." 
  • Celebrate. Create fun events and a stimulating environment. When people are having fun, they tend to be more themselves – and they perform better. Hold special events to celebrate the heroes on your staff. This will make you a hero in their eyes!

Generation X’s Preferred Work Environment

Xers as Managers


Gen X managers tend to:

  • be highly competent technically. 
  • have a somewhat lower "need-to-be-liked" factor than older managers.
  • bring a fresh perspective.
  • have a systems/big-picture orientation.
  • hold a strong work ethic.
  • care less about status and power than some of their older counterparts. 


Gen X managers tend to:

  • show impatience with poor performers.
  • have a hard time identifying with young employees who don’t share their work ethic.
  • be less "seasoned" in their decision-making (nothing they can do to change their age!).
  • give needy employees less attention than they require.