IBIS shares news, insight and best practices about pressing Diversity & Inclusion and Unconscious Bias topics in today’s workplace.

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Wanted: Managers capable of creating and sustaining an open, collaborative workplace culture

Benefit: Leading an organization that is hugely appealing across all segments of the multi-generational workforce
Requirement: Self-reflection a necessity

Traditionalist – Boomers – Gen X’ers – Millennials. How to recruit? How to retain? How to motivate? How to engage? How to leverage their unique experiences, backgrounds, and capacity for innovation? What are each generation’s distinctive work-life balance needs? Which work-life balance needs do they have in common?

It is no surprise that questions regarding the realities of the diversity that defines our multi-generational workforce are the focus of so many discussions on-line, off-line, at conferences; you name the space, it’s all the buzz!

Building cross-generational relationships
Following this trend, this year’s Boston Business Journal’s “Leaders in Diversity” Awards program included a panel discussion on Millennials and the Diversity Challenge. It was great to hear directly from the Millennial leaders involved as they shared their perspectives on the challenges of our multi-generational workforce. Much of what was discussed focused on the importance of developing cross-generational relationships. The panel recognized that while knowledge in today’s technology driven workplace is no longer gained “only through experience and tenure,” that an understanding of organizational culture is something “gained over time.” Cautioning Traditionalist, Boomers and Gen X’ers to “teach the wisdom, but not impose the scars,” these Millennial leaders were eager to build on the legacy of prior generations, but had “much to bring to the table now!”

Understanding generational differences and needs
As there is no shortage of discussion, there is no shortage of resources for gaining a greater understanding of the generational differences and needs within our multi-generational workforce. Identifying six trends and offering tips for engaging the multigenerational workforce, Dr. Susan Hannam, and Dr. Bonni Yordi encourage managers to rethink “old paradigms about what work is and how it gets done,” and see the trends as windows of opportunity to “build bridges across generations” in work environments.

Focusing on the manager “in the doorway”
Hannam and Yordi note that, “One key to successful organizations today is to have workers bring their discretionary energy and passion to work.”

But how is this possible if employee’s energy and passion, regardless of generational affiliation, is undermined by the practices of managers? Managers, for example, can “stand in the way” of gaining a greater understanding of organizational-specific cultural insights, and their conscious or unconscious biases can have employees tippy toeing, guessing and ducking, or “sitting on their hands” to avoid the inevitable consequences on those biases.

As a senior executive shared with me recently, “I get feedback from employees that are diverse that it is a night and day difference when a manager attends an event or participates in a diversity related discussion. I’ll say it again – we need more bias training for managers!”

The critical message here is as follows: gone unchecked, the bias-riddled practice of any manager can easily undercut the development of an open workplace culture where cross-generational, collaborative relationships can flourish and benefit the organization.

Six strategies for managers
Managers need to see our multi-generational workforce as more than just an exercise in “embracing” expanded demographics. They need to be critically self-reflective of their own practice. To increase the potential of reaping the benefits of the diverse perspectives that Traditionalist, Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials now bring to the workplace, organizations should incentivise managers to take the time necessary to build their inclusive practice.

1-  Managers need to be authentic with coworkers
With a significance that echoed across the business world, it was pretty big news this past October when Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly came out as gay. It also sent a strong underlying message about the irreplaceable value of trust and authenticity to an inclusive and open workplace culture.

Here’s another underlying message for managers: examining one’s capacity for true authenticity across the full breadth our multi-generational workforce is important on-going work.

2 – Managers need to be transparent
Microsoft CEO Satya Nardella readily admitted he made a mistake at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference when he advised female employees not to ask for a raise, but instead to believe in the system. Nardella admitted to his mistake instead of making excuses, used the event to create new initiatives promoting diversity and pay equity at Microsoft, and stated publically, “My advice underestimated exclusion and bias — conscious and unconscious — that can hold people back. Any advice that advocates passivity in the face of bias is wrong.”

Managers set an important tone for an organization when they are transparent about their own learning curve regarding issues of diversity and inclusion. The other value added? An expanded sense that leadership is accessible – something that is hugely appealing across all segments of the multi-generational workforce.

3 – Managers need to find the common threads of “good management” practice in their diversity strategy
All too often diversity is seen as something that gets added on to basic business strategy. This sends the wrong message rippling through an organization, and is counterproductive to any effort to leverage the benefits of the diversity that defines our multi-generational workforce.

As a related exercise, take a moment to study the 8 ways to identify male advocates published by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Pretty much all of these “tips” recognize the value of intentionally building relationships across multiple demographics, make good business sense, and fit easily in anyone’s list of “good management” practice!

4 –  Managers need to “make it personal”
One of my favorite articles on issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is Alison Maitland’s Workspace Unconscious Biases. In it, Maitland examines the question, How do you get senior executives to address the impact of their unconscious biases?”

Maitland discusses a variety of solutions, but in the end clearly states, We need to make it personal. That starts with recognizing that we all carry prejudices around with us—even though we often don’t know, or won’t admit, that we have them. We like to think we are fair and open-minded, but we still gravitate toward people like us, and the impact of unconscious biases is magnified when people hold positions of leadership and influence …People generally don’t change their attitudes because they are told they should, but because something makes them want to. The more that ‘something’ touches them personally, the better.”

She also states, Leaders’ biases can hold up growth and innovation by diminishing the contribution of employees with perspectives and experiences that are different than those of the dominant group.” Maitland echoes the critical message that the bias-riddled practice of managers can undercut the development of an open workplace culture where cross-generational, collaborative relationships can flourish.

5 –  Managers need to talk – manager to manager
Managers need to have opportunities to share their personal narratives about their efforts to be diversity champions. Managers need opportunities to share their strategies for developmenting an open workplace culture. Many times I have gone into an organization to find significant “pockets” at all levels of management, of leaders who are willing to give voice to the challenges and successes associated with their own critical work regarding issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. But all too often, organizations don’t take advantage of this valuable internal resource!

It is smart business to intentionally set up just these types of opportunities. Based on a strong common understanding of the business case for diversity and inclusion, managers can collectively deconstruct their practice and share strategies for strengthening their practice. The content of this leadership training should not be dictated, but given the involvement of skilled facilitators, managers can engage in a safe and effective dialogue across different levels of understanding and skill. Group exercises such as examining case studies and simulations, etc. can also be included.

6 –  Managers need to seek ambiguity
It is interesting, for example, that Microsoft’s Education Competencies includes “dealing with ambiguity” on its list of strategic skills for successful job performance. According to Microsoft’s definition, someone deals well with ambiguity when they “can effectively cope with change; can shift gears comfortably; can decide and act without having the total picture; can comfortably handle risk and uncertainty.”

How does this relate to our topic? We know that biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, age, generational affiliation, etc. can many times influence the decisions and choices that managers make on a daily basis. We are all challenged to realize how much we have been influenced by the significant amount of misinformation regarding the value and skill capacity of employees who are members of these underrepresented groups. Managers need to be able to “hold” the discomfort and uncertainty of questioning that misinformation, and risk finding ways to contradict what they know and think.

Let’s be clear – this is not about being indecisive. What we are talking about is managers moving beyond the limitations of their own personal paradigms, perspectives and life experiences. Doing this intentionally can strengthen their ability to embrace, and therefore leverage the full benefits of the diversity that defines our multi-generational workforce.

Stay tuned
The next article will look at the other side of the multi-generational workforce equation, and offer strategies to employees for measuring how “inclusive” their work environment really is.

In the meantime, it is noteworthy that some of the common work-life balance needs of our multi-generational workforce, from childcare to elder care, are pushing change as organizations compete to recruit and retain skilled talent. These demands challenge both an organization’s systems and the practices of its leaders. Managers who think proactively, and are self-reflective and critical of their practice will be well-positioned to play an important role as these challenges continue to evolve.