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  • Richard Spilg

Helping multi-generational teams succeed

One of the most interesting dynamics in business today is that, for the first time, we have up to four generations together in the same workplace. Combine this with the impact of digital disruption, where younger executives are being promoted to positions of leadership, and we have the reality of multi-generational teams being led by their youngest member. An issue for those younger leaders is that they may not yet have developed a leadership style that’s authentic for them, and one that translates into an effective leadership style for their teams.

As the workplace becomes more collaborative and with success being dependent on high-performing teams, the challenges for these young leaders are significant. Recent research (1) indicates that Millennials will comprise 75% of the global workforce by 2025 – an enormous challenge and opportunity for organisations. While there are widespread similarities between Millennials and non-Millennials in terms of wanting to be valued and to create value, there are significant differences in working styles and attitudes to work/life balance that will come into play. To summarise (2)

  • Millennials (born 1980-95) live then work, are tech savvy, team oriented and social

  • Generation X (1965-79) work to live, are technologically adept and individualistic

  • Baby boomers (1946-64) live to work, are quality driven and work-centric

  • Traditionalists (pre-1945) work is life, are loyal to an organisation and disciplined

Companies generally thrive when they have high-performing teams, and a sustainably high-performing team will always be a “learning” team - ‘a group of people with a common purpose who take active responsibility for developing each other and themselves’(3). Underpinning the drivers of a learning team is the concept of “psychological safety” – a team environment ‘characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves’(4). Patrick Lencioni (5) includes absence of trust as one of five team dysfunctions that needs to be separately addressed - the fear of being vulnerable and open with one another. In the absence of trust there is no prospect of open and honest conversation. Conversely, one of the keys to building trust is through genuine communication. This is potentially where inter-generational dynamics can make things tricky, given that each generation communicates in different ways and accesses information from different sources.

A recent article by Lucy Kellaway (6) highlighted faddish organisational trends that are effectively shutting out older workers. She contends that the barriers to older employees have nothing to do with their mastery of technology or their lack of entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, she believes the barrier is the new open, unhierarchical structure – the product of a socially networked age where the organisation is built around conversation. While efforts to encourage conversations in the workplace are obviously positive for every age group, the format of these new types of conversation is potentially a problem for older generations.

Referencing a rapidly growing US software company, the subject of a recent book by Catherine Turco (7), she describes a corporate get-together (“hack night”) where hundreds of employees are assembled over pizza and beer, and where anyone with an idea is called to share it with the entire audience. Each idea is then assigned to a part of the room, music is pumped up, and everyone moves around to discuss whichever idea appeals to them. It goes on for hours until everyone goes home at around 9pm. The question is not whether this works, nor whether any fruitful discussion could result, but whether it represents a “psychologically safe” environment for a non-Millennial. Contrast this with how a psychologist/coach friend of mine explains the importance of listening to establishing trust. He uses the following analogy – should I be at risk of drowning and you put your life at risk to save me, I will trust you forever. A less dramatic situation, but as powerful an outcome, is if you suspend your inner dialogue and take the time to truly listen to me. He believes this to be one of the greatest gifts we can give our employees and colleagues. There has been no more high-stakes example of a multi-generational team needing to tap into the collective wisdom and experience of each of its members than in the recent US Presidential campaign. The Clinton campaign team comprised extremely accomplished people spanning three generations, led by the youngest member in his mid-30’s with a reputation for being very data-driven. Any analysis of that team’s primary objectives would have included the need to ensure that the three Democratic “firewall” States (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan) were never at risk of loss to the Republicans.

It is conceivable that one of the more intuitive/experienced members of the team may have raised doubts about the accuracy of the polls and argued for a much greater focus on those key States. In the heat of the campaign, it is also possible that insufficient attention was paid to those doubts and simple plans to address them weren’t formulated. While I will obviously never know what transpired in those team discussions, the hard truth is that the team ultimately failed because it failed to identify the one key thing they needed to avoid – the loss of those “safe” States. How then to make sure a team gets the benefit of the skills and experience of all its members? To help reconcile different communication preferences and working styles and turn a group of individuals into a high-performing team? This is where I believe effective team coaching can play a significant role. Team coaching is different from coaching team leaders on how to lead their teams, or coaching individuals in a group setting. David Clutterbuck (3) defines team coaching as ‘helping the team improve performance, and the process by which performance is achieved, through reflection and dialogue’. Hawkins and Smith (8) define it as ‘enabling a team to function at more than the sum of its parts, by clarifying its mission and improving its external and internal relationships’. Any new team will inevitably go through the various (and iterative) stages of “Forming”, “Storming”, “Norming” and “Performing” before they become capable of creating transformational change. The coach’s role is therefore to successfully guide the team through each stage – exercising judgement as to how directive or non-directive to be at any point, with the ultimate objective of not being required at all once the team becomes self-sustaining. The process in helping the team achieve its objectives will typically include:

  • Building understanding of what differentiates a team from a group of individuals

  • Understanding the commitment required to become a high-performing team

  • Developing norms to facilitate genuine communication

  • Making time to discuss difficult issues and related emotions

  • Creating fun ways to acknowledge and relieve tensions

  • Fostering a psychologically safe environment that builds interpersonal trust and mutual respect

  • Helping the team express their creativity and embrace experimentation

  • Helping the team identify and access resources required to achieve their ambitions

  • Helping the team identify blind spots and avoid areas of potential failure

  • Challenging the team to ensure that action plans are well conceived

  • Ensuring that each member is held accountable for bringing plans to fruition

  • Challenging the team to exceed its own expectations

  • Keeping the team focused on achieving outcomes that yield the required return on investment

The team and coach can never lose sight of this last point – the need to ensure that the corporate sponsor can objectively measure the benefit derived from the investment it has made in team coaching. An added, more qualitative, benefit for younger team members is that the experience of being coached as part of a team will give them insights into the benefits of a coaching culture, and how they may incorporate that into their own style of leadership.


1 UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs

2 PwC 2013 Next Gen study

3 David Clutterbuck (2007) Coaching the team at work

4 Amy Edmondson (2002) “The local and variegated nature of learning in organisations”, Organization Science

5 Patrick Lencioni (2002) The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

6 Lucy Kellaway (2016) “Silicon Valley’s corporate culture is ageist”, Financial Times

7 Catherine Turco (2016) The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social media

8 Hawkins and Smith (2006) Coaching, Mentoring and Organisational Consultancy: Supervision and development

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