Managing a Multi-Generational Team: The Importance of Empathy

For this month’s Noetic blog, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Wendy Zajack, Faculty Director and Associate Professor of the Practice at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. Wendy’s work spans across a workforce and student population of five different generations. While this provides countless opportunities for leading and learning, it has its challenges.

Welcome Wendy! Let’s start with your thoughts on how to manage multi-generational teams effectively.

I think that multi-generational work requires one thing above all else – empathy. As a solid Gen Xer, one thing I find interesting is the frequency in which my millennial students complain about Gen Zs. It’s reminiscent of the same way I remember my generation complaining about Millennials. I also clearly remember Baby Boomers doing the same to my generation. So, what does this mean? Every generation brings strengths and weaknesses to their approach to the world.

“Figuring how to harmonize it all ends up being a good thing. Instead of focusing on what you don’t like about this generation, focus on what you do like.”

What are some advantages of hiring across generations?

My endocrinologist gave the best and clearest example of one major advantage. She is a baby boomer in her early 70s and has many doctors in her practice, some in their mid-30s. She told me this mix of generations is what sets her practice apart. She has practiced for over 40 years, seen a wide variety of cases and has tremendous historical knowledge. Her younger colleagues don’t have this breadth and depth, but they bring new medical techniques, new approaches and new treatments. The practice is constantly evolving and exploring while benefiting from the vast wisdom of each doctor’s experiences.

“The mix of knowledge and experience is super powerful when everyone is set up to contribute.”

How can an organization foster a culture of empathy to help break down generational bias?

Company leaders need to lead by example. Culture comes from the top, so if we see an active culture of empathy, we can’t help but model it. If our leaders are not empathetic, it is hard to set a tone for an empathetic organization. Another key part of fostering a culture of empathy is better listening. After 30 years of working as a communicator, I sometimes struggle to hear someone and not jump in immediately to make my point.

“Active listening is a skill that takes much practice but can be learned. It’s about intention.”

When is it appropriate to challenge the mindset of “this is how we’ve always done it.”

As an educator, I love this question. Right now, I am undergoing a massive shift in my education style for GenZs. I think the second we say or think “We’ve always done it this way” is the time to ask ourselves why. We also need to ask if this practice is still serving our organization or our customers. This answer changes faster than we would all like to think. I see more companies doing this by removing work-at-home flexibility because ‘the CEO thinks it is a good thing’. A better approach is to explain to employees why coming to the office can be valuable, or better yet, letting them experience it again for themselves.

“There should be conversations instead of mandates where each side can openly and honestly communicate their opinions, objections and feedback.”

Is there anything else you would like to share?

“Just that overall, I think it’s important to understand and recognize how beneficial diversity (of all kinds) is – both in life and the workplace. We need to embrace that multi-generational knowledge and experience is an important part of the diversity picture.”

Learn more about Noetic’s approach to managing and leading teams by contacting us today!