IT leadership: 3 ways to boost your Generational IQ (GQ)

Today's workforce spans a wider generational range than ever before. These tips can help you bridge the age gap and foster strong, collaborative teams
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diversity and inclusion

These days, generational diversity is one of the most pronounced realities of work. CIOs with large teams are managing at least four and up to six generations in the workforce, depending on how we measure them.

Not sure how the generations are categorized? Here’s a quick primer on the main groups:

  • Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964, they are generally competitive and driven. As a generation that values being recognized for their work experience and wisdom, they are retiring much later than previous generations. They’ve adapted to technology but still appreciate face-to-face interactions.
  • Gen X: Born between 1965 and 1980, they are a well-educated group that values autonomy and work-life balance. Raised on MTV and video games, this group pioneered the internet we know today, making them extremely comfortable with communicating via most tech channels – the more remote the better.
  • Millennials: Born between 1981 and 1996, they are a collaborative group motivated by meaningful work. The first digital natives, they are completely comfortable communicating across multiple types of channels, including email, video conferencing, and chat platforms.
  • Gen Z: Born between 1997 and 2015, they grew up with immediate access to the internet, news, and social media. They value social responsibility and diversity and they’re breaking apart traditional learning structures. Like their Gen X counterparts, they also place a priority on flexibility, and they fully expect to communicate across a variety of digital tools at work.

[ Also read Diversity in IT: 3 key components to enable meaningful change. ]

With so many generations bringing their values, preferences, and opinions about how things should be done into the workplace, teams are bound to run into challenges that require a culturally competent leader. Left unaddressed, inter-generational differences can weaken employee engagement, halt productivity, and drive unnecessary staff turnover – three things no CIO can afford at a time when the business expects IT to drive revenue while cutting costs.

Raising your own awareness of cross-generational interactions can help you develop the Generational IQ (GQ) you need to lead, influence, and work with people of all ages. As your role as CIO becomes less about the hard tech itself and more about communicating and collaborating around data across teams, now is the time to boost your GQ. Here are three ways to do that:

1. Understand that people generally want the same thing at work

Regardless of generational preferences about remote schedules and preferred modes of communication, all generations at work tend to want the same basics: flexibility, team support, personal growth, and appreciation for their contributions. What seems to change is the sequence and prioritization of those basics.

All generations at work tend to want the same basics: flexibility, team support, personal growth, and appreciation for their contributions.

A young Gen Z employee with fewer family responsibilities may prioritize growing their career and upskilling. That might manifest as a desire to be in the office more often than their counterparts. At the same time, a Gen X’er, who also values growing their career, may be temporarily more focused on the needed flexibility to care for both aging parents and kids. This might manifest as a stronger focus on efficiency and the desire to work remotely.

Tapping into commonalities around what everyone wants and making sure your team knows you respect those basic needs can score you some patience points when differing opinions make their way into influencing team expectations. A great example of this is remote work: Nearly all generations demand more choice and control over when and where they get work done.

2. Listen more than you talk

People need to feel heard. Across generations, people put a high value on recognition and respect. As a leader, make sure you have processes that allow you to listen more than you talk. Create plenty of opportunities to show appreciation and respect through both informal recognition processes as well as through formal rewards programs.

Leaders who do enough listening (and ask the right questions) can weave generational preferences into how they acknowledge and recognize individuals. With the huge amount of diversity not only across but within generations, using surveys to identify those preferences is a smart way to test what works.

A great example of this is customizing how you recognize your team after a big project goes live. A Millennial may value a gift card to use for a trip, while a Boomer may find more value in having their wisdom documented in an online training course for future team members.

3. Don't fall into the assumption trap

This is big. Yes, each generation is a product of the culture, events, and values they grew up with. For example, we may think of Gen X as first-gen latchkey kids – a fiercely independent group of problem-solvers who still check email and love to work solo. On the flip side, we may think of Gen Z as the gen digital natives who prefer to make group decisions on the trendiest app.

While it’s wise to have awareness of broad generational characteristics, it’s more important to remember that people are individuals. Making assumptions that everyone in a generation has the same work style, communication preferences, and values will undermine your leadership.

Take the time to get to know your team members on an individual basis. A survey during the onboarding process or even a project kick-off can be a fantastic place to ask people their preferences on things like work style, communication expectations, and decision-making processes.

As tech teams become more inclusive and collaborative, modern CIOs must excel at attracting multiple generations into effective discussions and decision-making processes. They must set the tone that ultimately, the priority is doing what is right rather than being right. A stronger GQ is the first step in setting and maintaining that tone.

[ Ready to level up your communication skills? Get advice from IT leaders. Download our Ebook: 10 resources to make you a better communicator. ]

Deb Muller is the founder and CEO of HR Acuity, a solution built for employee relations and investigations. She is driven by an obsession to do things the right way, particularly in employee relations, where she has spent her career championing excellence and effectively managing workplace investigations.