New diversity challenge for SA

2012-12-14 00:00

DIVERSITY in South Africa is typically put into the context of race and culture. Generational diversity receives less attention and is sometimes ignored entirely by strategic decision-makers.

As South Africa enters a fourth year of potentially low growth, the challenge of optimising all resources will sharpen. Most organisations today have, in fact, mostly three or even four generations in the work place:

• Silent Generation or Traditionalists (born before or during WW2);

• Baby Boomers (born 1946-64);

• Generation X (born 1965-80);

• Millennials or Generation Y (born 1981-90).

Also up for scrutiny is the cross-generational record for creating value. Younger does not always mean more creative or more willing to take risk. Older does not always mean staid and conservative.

A whole swathe of top companies owe their existence to 40-something entrepreneurs. So drive, energy, ideas and entrepreneurial flair are not monopolised by the under-35s.

Value enhancement and innovation can come from any age range, making it vital to attract, retain and encourage talent from 17 to 70.

That is the conclusion of U.S. researchers who say improving multi-generational employee engagement is a key to higher productivity.

The good news is that generational differences can be beneficial.

A Kelly Global Workforce study of 100 000 employees reported that 42% of respondents believed differences between Boomers, Millennials and Generation X-ers boosted productivity. Another conclusion is that “command-and-control” CEOs from the ranks of the Traditionalists and Boomers may face difficulty unlocking multi-generational contributions as some younger groups resent orders and respond best to encouragement and praise. Researchers have found that the biggest concern among Millennials is that they receive insufficient recognition.

The conclusion is that if you want high productivity from the under-30s, be generous in your praise and provide frequent feedback. This, however, holds for all generations. Basic needs apply to all age groups.

Researchers have also found that the demand for flexible working is no longer restricted to Generations X and Y, but spans all age groups, prompting a rethink about the nature of work and where it should be conducted. Millennials yearn to learn and welcome mentoring, while reverse mentoring (encouraging Millennials and X-ers to share techie knowledge with older colleagues) receives growing attention.

Technology platforms foster collaboration. Teamwork and constant sharing are taken for granted by Millennials. They are looking for a partnership with their employer, not just a salary.

Differences have also been noted in the learning and communication methods that work best for different groups. Manuals and lectures work for older employees, but are less effective for younger employees.

Motivational differences are also significant.

Reference to a business’s size may be positive for Boomers who like the idea of scale and stature, but Millennials may equate size with bureaucratic inertia.

However, while Generation X-ers are assumed to be low on loyalty, those in a study group insist they are committed to their companies.

Nor should it be assumed that only young entrants generate new thinking. When properly engaged, older workers also offer new solutions, though their views are informed by experience and deep knowledge.

Old practitioners frustrated by past practice may have some surprising perspectives.

Cross-generational collaboration may not be as difficult as it sometimes seems.

Admittedly, friction can occur and can prove costly, sharpening the need for effective leadership to ensure collaboration without conflict.

This is recognised in the U.S. and a blog debate has begun on best practice for managing a multi-generational workforce. Locally, the conversation has hardly begun.

Perhaps it should …

Auguste (Gusti) Coetzer and Michelle Moss are founding partners and directors of Talent Africa, a provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.

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