Multigenerational Workplaces: Leading the Way with Jim Kouzes

Jan 19, 2024

With up to five generations in the workplace at any given time, there has been a lot of attention paid to the differences between each generation over the last year. Stereotypes abound; whether it is tech-savvy Gen Z, the analog baby boomers, the checked-out millennials, or over-burdened Gen X, there are a lot of assumptions made about how each generation is approaching work and life. A recent article from Wiley Workplace Intelligence found that despite the abundance of stereotypes (which, let’s be honest, err on the side of being…unkind), each generation has a lot more in common than we think.

When it comes to the world of work and its constant change, it is important for organizations to promote leadership skills that transcend age while taking into consideration the nuances that define each generation, much like the world events that shaped them.

We sat down with The Leadership Challenge coauthor and leadership development expert Jim Kouzes to gain insight into how leaders can work effectively with teams of all ages. We learned that regardless of role, title, or age, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® provide a powerful (and universal) approach to leadership that goes beyond the stereotypes and assumptions that could be hurting your organization.

The Five Practices: A Universal Model for Leadership

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership badged: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, Encourage the Heart

We asked Jim if he has noticed a difference in how each generation approaches leadership skills and behaviors based on he and coauthor Barry Posner’s years of research.

“The short answer is no,” Jim says, calling in from his sunny California home. “The more frequently leaders, regardless of their age, demonstrate each of The Five Practices, the more their constituents assess their leaders as effective, the more they trust their leaders, and the more they’d recommend their leaders to others.”

The majority of mainstream references to the generations focus on differences, creating the illusion that there is very little that each generation has in common. A quick look on the social media platform Tik Tok has thousands of videos poking fun at how each generation approaches everything from hairstyles and clothing to a preference for or aversion to technology or their working style.

When it comes to the actual research, however, Jim says that meaningful differences in exemplary leadership behavior don’t show up. “The data tells a clear and consistent story: the more frequently people engage in exemplary leadership practices, the more effective they are, regardless of the generation they were born into,” Jim says.

Individuality is Key

That’s not to say that there aren’t nuances in the lived experience of people of different ages. The world events that shaped baby boomers are going to be different from those who came of age during a global pandemic, which is how Gen Z has experienced their formative years. Is there a foundational difference in how people of different ages should approach leading multigenerational teams?

“The answer, again, is “no,” not when it comes to the fundamentals. In different cultures or cohorts, The Five Practices may need to be expressed in a variety of different ways depending on the context and the people, but the fundamental practices are the same. You still have to Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart.”

Jim continues, “That said, there are many ways that you can personalize and individualize how you lead others. For example, not everyone may respond positively to the same type of recognition. You need to approach leadership as a relationship between yourself and others, and you have to understand the needs, motivations, and abilities of the people you are leading.”

Quote graphic: 'You need to approach leadership as a relationship between yourself and others, and you have to understand the needs, motivations, and abilities of the people you are leading,' Jim Kouzes

Everyone, regardless of age, will have differences in how they work, how they prefer to receive feedback or recognition, or how they approach interacting with their environment. Will they, for example, easily Challenge the Process, or will they more likely go with the flow until asked? Taking time to understand them is imperative, Jim says.

“Get to know the individuals on your team. Learn what makes them tick, what their interests are, what their hopes, dreams, and aspirations are. How you approach each individual may differ depending on what you learn about them, but the fundamentals of leading —The Five Practices — apply to everybody.”

“As a leader of that group, you need to get to know the people you lead and not assume that everybody responds identically to everything you do. Some people don't like to be recognized in front of everybody else. It may be embarrassing to them, so maybe you have to do it more privately. Yet, you still have to recognize their accomplishments in order for them to be fully engaged,” he continues.

When it comes to The Five Practices, everyone will have different levels of competence in each area.

“Some people may want to be more directly involved in helping to shape the vision of the organization, and other people may be fine with making their contributions quietly and less publicly. The goal is to create a shared vision in which people see that their interests are served by working toward the vision of the organization,” Jim says. “The methods to that sense of being aligned can vary.”

Leadership is a Relationship

Avoiding stereotypes is as important as learning how to approach leadership individually.

“Whenever you focus on leading differently based upon age, gender, or ethnicity, the more you risk over-generalizing and stereotyping. That can result in what’s now being called “generationalism” — its own subtle form of discrimination.”

When asked how leaders can approach connecting with team members with significant age differences, Jim offers “The first step for any leader is to listen and to have conversations with people. The best leaders do just that. They listen, listen, listen. To reiterate: leadership is a relationship, and listening is fundamental to building a positive relationship.”

If there is anything to take away from Jim’s insight on leading multigenerational teams it is to approach with individuality and prioritize the relationship – no matter what demographic they come from.

To Lead Multigenerational Teams You Must: 1) Individualize leadership to each person 2) Prioritize the relationship

“If you're going to have the kind of relationship where people consider you to be trustworthy, have confidence in you, and want to follow you, they need to know that you know them and that you’re not generalizing about them because of their age or ethnicity or generation,” Jim says. “As a leader, if you have a new generation, or multiple generations, in your workforce, create a process that would help everyone to understand each other's perspectives—not only the differences, but also the commonalities.”

As we have learned, there are far more commonalities than differences. Learn more about The Leadership Challenge® and how this suite of assessments and facilitated learning experiences can help shape your organization and unlock the power of leadership at every level.

About Jim Kouzes:

Author Jim Kouzes

Jim Kouzes is a Fellow of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University and the coauthor of The Leadership Challenge and over a dozen original publications on leadership. He began his lifelong career in education while serving in the Peace Corps in the late 1960s, and since then, founded the Joint Center for Human Services Development at San Jose State University, directed the Executive Development Center, Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, and served as president, CEO, and chairman of the Tom Peters Company. Jim has received numerous awards and recognition during his career, including acknowledgment as one of the twelve best executive educators in the US, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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