Being a leader means creating productivity, making your organisation competitive in its market and – if you’re particularly skilled – leaving some form of lasting legacy that others will look up to and follow. That’s the job that leaders are hired to do, and there’s a vision and mission involved in that. But when it comes to finding people who can move in the same direction, leaders all over the world are facing a challenge in one, critical area.

How leaders handle generational difference is a major predictor of engagement, productivity and commitment in a workforce. But right now, most leaders are having a really hard time grasping the psychological implications of the gulfs between generations X (born between 1965 and 1980), Y (Millennials, born between roughly 1981 and 1994) and Z (born between 1995 and 2009). Not to mention the chasm between those groups and the Baby Boomers – some of whom in leadership roles are reluctant retirees, turning up to work in their late 60s and early 70s.

Even with many Generation Xers still only in their 40s, they are totally different creatures to their younger Y and Z counterparts.

Structuring culture

If you have layers of leadership from each of those generations – as is starting to be the case – and they are having difficulties getting on the same page, we have a problem.

A real risk is that organisations will not be able to set conditions, structure culture and put together policies for inclusivity, diversity, equality and belonging in ways that work for today. As a result, we will face a loss of talent. And already, it’s getting poached. Organisations are hemorrhaging high potentials – because for every lumbering, long-established business that doesn’t understand the psychological implications of these differences, there are 10 nimble startups that do. Especially in the tech arena.

Leaders pass down their idea of an organisation’s culture, while the workforce’s idea of it grows from the bottom up. So, very often, somewhere around the halfway mark, there’s a disconnect. That has an effect not just on the leader’s ability to lead, but the reality of what life in the organization feels like – and that’s something I deal with a lot. But there’s good news! My background is in psychology, and I’ve seen a great deal of genuine eagerness among these generational groups to understand each other.

The foundation of bridging the gaps between them is what’s called ‘conscious leadership’ – sometimes referred to as ‘servant leadership.’ And that’s essentially a type of leadership that focuses on appreciating and working with people’s whole selves. With that in place, there are six skills at the core of helping generations to understand each other:

1. Awareness Being conscious of people’s underlying motivations and how those drivers will naturally differ between the generational groups in your workplace is absolutely key.

2. Understanding the implications of values – with a particular focus on values endurance: ensuring that what we settle on as a common platform of ethical positions will last for a long time and underpin the culture in which everyone works.

3. Communication Acting as an effective and patient intermediary who can take in everyone’s viewpoints and enable people from different backgrounds to see where each other is coming from is a major part of the task.

4. Emotional intelligence The two most important – and time consuming – people to reach in your efforts to bridge gaps are the actively disengaged (openly disgruntled and rebellious, refusing to collaborate, independent rather than interdependent) and passively disengaged (switched off, tuned out, don’t even understand what’s happening to them – but know that they are desperately unmotivated). The latter are harder to spot: on average, something between 60% and 70% of any organisation’s staff are passively disengaged. For the most part, they were once high potentials. But somewhere along the line, we dropped the ball.

5. Culture setting Inclusivity, diversity, equality, and belonging doesn’t just relate to different genders and ethnicities. We must also broaden it out to include different psychographics – which essentially means walks of life, and the psychologies they bestow upon us. This area has a huge overlap with understanding the implications of values.

6. Maintaining relationships and building trust This is not just about building trust within our teams but training our teams to build trust with our stakeholders. Because guess what: our stakeholders also come from the same range of generations – and not understanding how to connect with them is really damaging, not just for leaders but entire organisations.

Respect the process

Those are the topics that a leader has to master to heal generational divisions. There’s a strong link here with John C Maxwell’s Five Levels of Leadership. You can’t just be a name. You can’t just be someone who people will follow because they think you’re nice, or because you create results. To engage the two most recent generations in the workforce, you have to be able to make shifts in meaningful ways. Generation X certainly had some of that quest for meaning in them – but for Generation Z, everything is about meaning.

Inevitably, this is where the conversation turns to cross-mentoring – which must be a purposeful process. Generation Z are wise beyond their years, and understand the world from a place of sensitivity that not even millennials are familiar with. So, when Boomers try to preach to Gen-Zers with their old war stories, it goes in one ear and out the other. And when Gen-Zers clap back at Boomers, defying their decades of experience, it also goes in one ear and out the other. The repercussions for that kind of behaviour are that people end up feeling misunderstood and excluded.

Leaders who can approach engagement through the lens of emotional intelligence will encourage employees to respect the communication process and what it’s meant to achieve. What does it mean when we speak to each other? What’s the aim? What’s our collective agenda for the health of the organisation? Where do we stand? If the leader can develop the emotional intelligence, flexibility, understanding, and mental agility required to fully show up in their communication with others, and to make staff feel like they are seen, heard, and understood – which is super-important for Gen-Z – then they can make cross-mentoring work in a respectful, professional way that validates us as a united organisation.

What I’m describing is the opposite of a loose, casual style of leadership that says, ‘We’re just going to sit here and talk.’ That’s not what we’re looking at, here. We’re looking at how to drive high performance through the lens of understanding and collaborating with one another.

Despite all the issues I have highlighted, and my natural instinct as a realist, I am also an optimist – and I believe there is tremendous growth on the way. The big shifts that need to happen between the generations to bring them closer together are going to have major implications for the future of leadership, and I believe they will unfold increasingly over the next couple of years.

Even the older, legacy-brand companies – the Aramcos, Exxon Mobils, Shells and Unilevers of the world – are coming round to the importance of this shift and hiring coaches to make it happen within their teams. That bodes well for where we’re heading.


Voices from our community: Bahar Alexander is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and mentor specializing in high-performance team formation for productivity and engagement


Want to see more posts like this?

Get notified of great stories from our community, top tips and upcoming webinars & events.


Be recognised and get ahead.

Join our community of over 50,000 leaders from around the world.