Which Style Works Best?

by Bill Benoist
Date Published May 25, 2012 - Last Updated May 11, 2016


Whether the reason is the economy or just a desire to stay active, fewer workers are retiring once they reach their sixties. As a result, organizations are witnessing a new trend in age diversity, one in which groups share traditions and culture based upon the period in which they came of working age. For example, the technology boom of the 1990s will have had a more significant impact on the work processes of the Baby Boomers than Generation Y. The former group views technology in a limited role relative to the optimization of workplace efficiency, while the latter group assumes that technology is integral to workplace efficiency.[1] These differences may not only impact work processes, but also the interpersonal relationships between workgroup members.

Considering the global competitiveness of business, organizations that fail to give due consideration to age diversity may find that they are not achieving the most optimal results, not only in terms of productivity, morale, and job satisfaction, but also revenue and the bottom line. Employees should be recognized and understood as individuals, and this can only be done when their leadership takes a multidimensional perspective. Organizations that fail to recognize employee differences, whether those differences are based upon generational, ethnic, gender, or other attributes, risk losing good employees.

What are the best methods for collectively leading the four generations while taking into consideration the each group’s unique attributes? As I said, each group’s values are shaped by historical events that took place as they came of working age, and the specific leadership characteristics they admire will likewise be influenced by those events. This brooks the following question: Is there one leadership style that works best for Generation Y (born 1981–2000), Generation X (born 1965–1980), the Baby Boomer Generation (born 1946–1964), and the Silent Generation (born 1925–1945)?

Generational differences are a legitimate diversity issues that managers need to recognize and understand if they are to provide effective leadership. Unfortunately, getting generational subcultures to learn to work together presents significant challenges for many managers. According to one study, 66 percent of the Silent Generation and 51 percent of Baby Boomers said they had little or no interaction with Generation Y. In addition, 67 percent of Generation X and 71 percent of Generation Y workers said they rarely interacted with the Silent Generation.[2]

The Five Dysfunctions

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni argues that for a team to work effectively, they must overcome five deficiencies. First, individuals on a team must learn to trust one another: “Trust requires shared experiences over time, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility, and an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes of team members.”[3] He makes several suggestions, including having members share nonthreatening personal experiences, like unique challenges growing up, best and worst jobs, or favorite hobbies. In team meetings, such exercises can lead to a greater awareness of the similarities between the four generational subcultures, rather than the differences. As members of the team learn about each other, they will begin to trust each other.

Second, teams must understand that healthy conflict is a good thing. This can be a particular challenge for the Silent Generation, since one of the core values associated with that generation is conformity.[4] The role of the leader is to acknowledge the benefits of healthy conflict and to recognize when individuals are becoming uncomfortable. Leaders can then interrupt the discussion to remind everyone that what they are doing is not only necessary, but effective. This may seem paternalistic, but is an effective way to drain the tension from a diffi cult, but productive, exchange.

Third, teams must make unifi ed commitments, even in the face of uncertainty. Whereas this may be easier for the Silent Generation, which values conformity, making commitments when you don’t know that you are making the right decision can be difficult for members of Generation Y. For Generation Y, leaders should outline contingency plans and worst-case scenarios. For Generation X members, who value competence, leaders should define target deadlines.

Once generational subcultures begin to trust each other and learn to work together toward a common goal, they will become comfortable holding one another accountable. This addresses the fourth dysfunction many teams experience: lack of accountability. For this dysfunction, Lencioni argues that “the most effective and efficient means of maintaining high standards of performance on a team is peer pressure.”[5] One way a leader can manage group accountability is by moving away from individual reward recognition and focusing on group reward recognition. Managers should begin by publicizing the goals and standards teams are expected to achieve and maintain. Then, schedule progress reviews to allow team members to discuss their goals and performance. As trust and commitment builds, group accountability will follow.

Inattention to results is the final dysfunction Lencioni identifies in his book. Generation Y values teamwork, but simply being part of a team is not enough for the team to be effective. In addition, leaders must watch out for members who try to promote themselves at the expense of the team. For example, although Baby Boomers seek relationships and value team structures, Generation X, which learned independence at an early age, maintains a perspective of self-reliance.[6] Managers must set the tone. Eloquent speeches about values are not enough; the behavior of the manager is what will win the respect of the team.[7] If the manager behaves in a self-serving manner, he or she is giving the team permission to do likewise.

Managing Age-Diverse Teams

Once you understand that generational subcultures prioritize work attributes differently, the question becomes which style of leadership is most effective for an age-diverse team. You may think that a situational style—where the leadership style is matched up with the development level of the individual—is most effective.[8] For example, rather than considering the individual’s age, the manager takes into account the individual’s level of competence and ability to complete a task in a given situation. However, one study found a direct correlation between demographic characteristics and the desire for structure. Peter Northouse, a professor of leadership studies at Western Michigan University, believes that age is positively related to structure and has found that older employees desire greater structure than their younger counterparts.[9] If this is true, then a manager who provides less direction but greater support to a Silent Generation employee, regardless of the task, may be less effective than the manager who offers both greater direction and greater support.

Another approach to leading a multigenerational workforce is indicated by path-goal theory. Path-goal theory considers the relationship between leadership style, the characteristics of the employee, and the work variable. In path-goal theory, leaders carefully evaluate an employee and his or her tasks, and then choose an appropriate leadership style. In any given situation, the leader may use a directive, supportive, participative, or achievement-oriented approach. With path-goal theory, leaders can build employee confi dence, particularly in situations where the employee feels insecure about performing a certain task.

If path-goal and situational leadership are not the most effective leadership styles for a multigenerational workgroup, then what is? One leadership style that demonstrates a direct correlation between employee satisfaction and employee performance, regardless of age, is transformational leadership. Transformational leaders are charismatic and visionary, and they consider the emotions, values, ethics, and goals of their employees. Transformational leadership is an extension of transactional leadership, which emphasizes the exchanges between leaders and followers.[10] Transactional leaders reward employees for meeting expectations and they manage by exception, taking on each problem as it arises. Leaders can be both transactional and transformational in more or less equal measure, or they may favor one style exclusively.

The history of transformation leadership is well documented. Transformational leaders motivate their followers by creating connections with them and making them believe that together they can create a better future. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and César Chávez were all transformational leaders. They encouraged their followers to look beyond their immediate needs and serve a higher purpose, to reach for something more than what was originally expected or intended.

Northouse describes a transformational manager as one who “attempts to change the value-system of his or her company to reflect a more humane standard of fairness and justice.”[11] Unfortunately, the situation that surrounds a given task (i.e., the work setting, which may have formal rules and regulations) can have a direct impact on the leadership process. Such situations can be weak or strong, and are subject to ambiguity.[12] Just as a traffic light can be green or red, certain work processes and formal rules are fixed. However, once the light changes to yellow, the rules of the road become a little more obscure, more open to interpretation. The question now is whether the driver speeds up or slows down. Weak situations in the organization can be viewed in much the same way; such situations may be the result of unclear rules or procedures.

Transformational leadership can thrive in organizations with weak situations, but leaders may feel stifled using this approach in companies where formal rules and procedures exist.[13] This doesn’t mean it can’t work, though, even in the most structured environments. For example,

Profiles of US Army light infantry platoon leaders and sergeants reveal that those who in garrison reveal behaviors that are more transformational and less transactional subsequently lead more effective platoons in Joint Readiness Training Center exercises. Commanders who are seen as more transformational and less transactional have more constructive self-images, create more feelings of empowerment in their subordinates, and achieve higher productivity in their units.[14]

One is not likely to find an organizational culture with a more structured environment than the US military in wartime. In this case, at least, transformational leadership stands up to criticism that it is not as effective.

Although the existence of differing values, job attributes, and characteristics between generational periods seems self-evident, there is little guidance out there on effective leadership styles for generational subcultures. However, it does seem that there is a direct correlation between employee performance, employee satisfaction, and transformational leadership. Because one of the four factors defining transformational leadership is individual consideration, it would be reasonable to assume that using transformational leadership to manage an age-diverse team would be highly effective.

One needs only to look at the cost of ineffective leadership to understand why generational differences in the workforce are worth consideration. According to a Gallup poll, only 29 percent of workers are actively engaged in their jobs.[15] And the cost of just one disaffected worker is an average of 2.5 hours of lost productivity per day.[16] The statistics say it all: Leaders who fail to consider the multigenerational aspects of their workforce, and who do not acknowledge their employees’ cultural motivations, will fail to provide the environment necessary to ensure optimal job satisfaction, employee morale, and performance.


Bill Benoist is the vice president of information services for Marcus & Millichap in Palo Alto, CA, where he manages the internal help desk and technology training for the organization. He received his BS in management from the University of Phoenix and is completing his MA in leadership through Bellevue University. Bill is a member of the Silicon Valley HDI local chapter. 


Tag(s): people, leadership, workforce enablement


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