Most workplaces today have multigenerational teams, comprising Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Much has been written about the different outlooks and experiences these generations bring to the workforce. But one saliant question in these volatile times is whether they respond differently too change?

As consulting firm, Eagle Consulting, noted in 2014, surprisingly little has been written about the intersection of change management and multigenerational workforces, despite the fact that these are two of the hottest topics in business. In fact, since Eagle conducted a survey on the topic back then, not much new literature has been added to the mix.

Stereotyping would suggest that young people who have grown up with technology and the pace of the digital age would be more adaptable. Older people, with years of deeply entrenched habit and ways of thinking, would be more resistant to change, especially if it involves new technology. In some cases, there may be a kernel of truth in the generalisations.

Older workers often have longer tenures within the organisation and more established routines and habits. For them, change may spell disruption rather than opportunity. How people respond to change may also have a great deal to do with their stage of life: looking forward to a prosperous retirement (Boomers), caring for young families (Millennials), or setting out on their careers (Generation Z).

More alike than different?

But Eagle’s survey suggests that attitudes towards change are more similar than different across generations. According to Eagle, respondents across all age groups said that strong leadership, effective communication, and understanding the need or reason for change were the most important factors to successfully adopt a change.

Eagle’s research shows that for all generations, strong leadership was the single most important success factor. As Eagle concludes: Across generations, change is change and people are people.

The consulting firm suggests shelving the generational theory and focusing on some sound change management fundamentals:

  • Build a strong case for change;
  • Seek regular feedback from staff;
  • Provide visible leadership help to motivate and engage employees; and
  • Develop the right messages and over-communicate them through multiple in-person and digital channels.

That is not to say that customising change management programmes to different employee groups is a bad idea. HRchitect suggests using the idea of ‘technographic segmentation’, or segmenting people by technology preferences, as a more flexible approach to understanding different workplace personas than generational theory.

Alternate approaches to segmenting the workforce 

The model looks at two dimensions. Firstly, what is the person’s primary life motivation? Career, family or fun?  Secondly, what is their technology orientation? Are they technology optimists or technology pessimists? Such an approach helps a business to tailor change management to what people believe and how they behave rather than how old they are.

For example, tech pessimists with a family orientation could be supported with messaging about how a new collaboration system will give them flexibility to spend more time with family. Tech optimists with a career orientation will probably be ready for the change, but could be inspired to help less enthused colleagues make the switch.

Change management strategies should embrace the commonalities and differences in the workforce. But it’s more useful to look at each person as an individual rather than as a representative of a group. That is the key to empathising with their hopes and fears, in turn helping to foster positive emotional responses to change in the workplace.