5 Tips for Leading in a Multi-generational Workplace

By Kirsten Helvey, Chief Operating Officer at Cornerstone OnDemand

Providing effective feedback is one of the most challenging aspects of managing people. But it is an essential skill. Managers need to develop their employees to grow into their potential, and feedback creates the windows of opportunity for learning.

Workplaces today can contain up to five generations, each bringing their own unique insights, experiences and expectations. It takes little to imagine why a Gen Z employee who lives on Snapchat would be bewildered at the idea of an annual performance review. When you can instantly engage the world with a tap on your phone, why wait a year to hear feedback on your performance this month?

This generational shift has led to a drastic change in what employees expect from their managers in terms of mentoring, coaching and receiving feedback. Formal mentoring and coaching techniques are essential for long-term employee development, and feedback is a crucial component for those to be successful. Today however, feedback is being removed from the formal setting and is quickly being transformed to an informal, frequent and free flowing process.

Frequent feedback for better results

When Millennials first entered the workforce, they were often stigmatized for needing constant attention and reassurance -- when really they were just expecting to work in a reflection of the world they grew up in -- which was technology-driven, on-demand and social by nature.

Turns out, they were on to something. Employees of all generations want to know how they are performing and what they can do to grow. They also want to know that they can give feedback too, making it a two-way street.

Feedback isn’t just good for employees -- it’s also good for the bottom line. Companies that prioritize feedback and offer formal mentorship programs report a 48 percent increase in organizational strength, a 22 percent increase in profitability and a 53 percent increase in productivity.

Feedback for all generations

Having an overarching feedback strategy will make your multigenerational workforce all feel like they are getting the support they need. Here’s how:

1. Create a culture of feedback: Employees ought to feel safe requesting and receiving feedback. Start the conversation by asking for feedback about yourself – it sets the stage that asking for feedback is OK and opens up valuable dialogue. And you’ll learn a few things about yourself.

2. Make feedback a priority: I take the first ten minutes of my executive update meetings to have everyone share a personal and professional update about their past week. Then I ask the group for feedback on current initiatives. Make feedback part of group settings to further engrain it as part of the culture.

3. Provide feedback in the moment: You don’t need to set up a pre-determined time to give someone feedback. Do it when you are going over a report together and you see a teaching moment. Or if you are meeting on an unrelated topic, feel free to bring it up. The more often feedback is given the more normalized it becomes.

4. Make it actionable: Give specific examples of how an employee can improve their performance. Vague feedback can be almost worse than no feedback. An employee should be able to walk away with an exact blueprint of how to best move forward.

5. Be human about it: Everyone is unique and people react to feedback in their own way. If I have to give an especially bad piece of feedback, I try to perceive what’s going on with that person, and that’s only done through talking. That’s why it’s important to create a culture of feedback from the start so open and honest communication is the norm.

When I first started my career I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for feedback proactively; it just wasn’t the culture at the time. Now, there is no longer a “right time.” It’s all the time. Employees should be able to ask when they want it, and managers should deliver at the moment it’s necessary. It’s a necessary tool to keep employees engaged and drive the business forward.


Kirsten Helvey is a management guru, overseeing all aspects of global business operations and global client experience as COO of Cornerstone OnDemand. She is responsible for a team of more than 400, and writes frequently about workplace best practices.