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Leading the Complex Workforce

Mary Cooper

Leaders today are facing the most complicated workforce in history. For the first time, four generations are working side-by-side, each at different life stages and each with conflicting needs. The members of each group have largely been shaped by the social and economic events that occurred during their lifetimes. And when it comes to jobs and leaders, each group comes to the workplace with different perspectives and expectations.

Adding to the complexity that a generationally diverse workforce creates is the rapid growth of ethnic and cultural workers in America. Leaders today are discovering that they must learn new skills: strong human relations, communications, and diversity skills and knowledge are essential. They must know how to motivate and inspire in order to get work done and create success for the organization, for themselves, and for their team.

Leading within this complex environment can be challenging and rewarding, with plenty of opportunity to capitalize on diverse ideas and work styles that bring innovation to the organization. To succeed, great leaders will need to learn to tap into the resources of this multigenerational and multicultural workforce, handle misunderstandings and misperceptions effectively, and leverage the varied talents and worldviews of each and every employee.

While there may be all types of differences in needs, perspectives, and expectations—between and among generations and cultures—there are several strategies that flow from The Five Practices model that leaders can employ. Together, these approaches can help create an environment that will engage employees, enhance their talents, and maximize productivity:

  1. Treat others with respect.  Whether differences are social, economic, generational, cultural, religious, life and work experience, or lifestyle, think of each person as a first-edition, collectible book. We must treat each with respect as it is only when we get to know who is inside—beyond the cover—that we can truly understand and appreciate every one for the unique individuals they are.
  2. Make it easy for others to express their ideas. Doris Kearns Goodwin said "Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation." Following Ms. Goodwin's advice, we must create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their suggestions and concerns and where healthy disagreement can occur. Involve employees, ask their opinion, and take into consideration the generational and cultural characteristics and traits that may inhibit employees from expressing their ideas. Solicit ideas in different ways because some of us are comfortable speaking in groups while others prefer speaking one-on-one.
  3. Commit to ongoing growth. Growth may be developing a new skill, advancing in a career, or speaking a second language. Leaders must provide employees with the tools and resources necessary not only to perform specific job tasks, but to develop competence and confidence in order to maximize each person's potential. This can be done through formal training, buddy systems, cross-training and mentoring.
  4. Give credit and recognize. William James once said "The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated." We all like to be told that our efforts and accomplishments are valued. And recognition doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, think about some of the most meaningful recognition you have ever received and you will realize that it probably didn't cost much. However, it was no doubt personal, specific, relevant, timely, and sincere. It also probably honored your preference for being recognized in public or in private.
  5. Develop strong communication skills. Leaders must clearly articulate the standards of performance, the rules or parameters of the company culture, and the 'why' behind policies and procedures. Be open and honest in your communication with others and provide information in a timely manner. Be direct and respectful in holding everyone accountable for performance and behaviors, giving specific feedback on what necessary changes and improvements you determine need to be made. Most important, and often overlooked, improve your ability to be a good listener. Keen listening is the way to get to know people as individuals, rather than by title or category.  Remember: diversity is multi-dimensional, so even the same generation or culture is expressed uniquely by each of us.

Keep in mind that the best strategy for leading others—whether employees, peers, or volunteers—is to know each person as an individual! Avoid stereotyping and making assumptions. Leadership is all about relationships. The deeper your relationship, the more effective you will be at knowing how to communicate, coach, motivate, challenge, and guide every individual to be the best they can be.

Mary Cooper is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge® and president of Engaging Outcomes, an Orlando-based training and consulting firm focused on guiding leaders and organizations in leaving a legacy. Former consultant for the Disney Institute and co-author of The Voice of Leadership, she can be contacted at


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