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How Target Misfired Managing Its Boomer Workers

The problems with the store chain's multigenerational training guide


As workplaces seek to adapt to their changing demographics, some employers now offer their managers training programs to supervise their multi-generational employees — boomers, Millennials, Gen X’ers and others. Sometimes, however, their materials provide a teaching tool primarily for those interested in learning what not to do. 

Case in point: the Target internal guide called “Managing Generational Differences” that was recently leaked to the Gawker website. (The guide's copyright says 2009, but Gawker commenters say the manual is still used today.)

Puzzling View of Boomers

Apparently geared to the company’s store team leaders, the handout touts the importance of tailoring leadership styles to the needs of various generations. In actuality, however, it is difficult to gain much insight from the generalizations offered, because it’s hard to distill generational research trends into a chart.

The recommendations regarding boomers were particularly puzzling. In describing boomer-employee attributes, Target cited (among other things) “driven” and seemed not to note the potential contradiction of also listing “seek personal gratification” and “generous.”

(MORE: Generational Training: What's In It for Boomers?)

The chart added other questionably contradictory descriptions by identifying the boomer workstyle as “competitive” and also “team player.” In addition, the boomer preferences for recognition and reward included “public acknowledgement” and “money.” 

Moreover, these descriptions could easily fit just about every person in the workplace at various times in their lives.

Boomers, however, fared better than Gen X (age 35 to 50) in Target’s overgeneralized list of traits, who were described as “impatient,” “cynical” and lacking in “people skills.”

How to Coach Each Generation

Target also offered tips for coaching each generation. Managers were advised to acknowledge boomers' “experiences, expertise, dedication and length of service” and to “focus on relationships as well as results.” Other recommendations for supervising these employees in their 50s and 60s: “Give public recognition and perks (if possible)” and “focus on challenges, give them problems to solve.”  

(MORE: Boomers' Love/Loathe Relationship With Millennials)

It may be difficult to apply a team approach to solving problems, though, if boomers feel patronized in the process.

When coaching Gen X, Target says, “acknowledge and relate to their skepticism,” “convey that you care and support them” and “use clear and specific language when communicating.” Does this mean that other generations don’t need clear language or that only Gen X’ers bring a skeptical eye to their workplace encounters?

Apparently not. To coach Millennials (those in their 20s and early 30s), Target also suggests “clear, direct and specific” language, as well as “follow up to ensure your message was understood.” Millennials, it appears, are less likely to respond to the clear and specific message without followup than their Gen X colleagues. 

Both Millennials and Gen X’ers seem to do best in a “fun” environment, according to Target. But how exactly can Target provide a “fun, challenging and fast-paced work environment” for Millennials while similarly offering a “fun, relaxed work atmosphere” for Gen X'ers? Can different parts of the store be set aside for a fast-paced environment and others for a relaxed atmosphere?

(MORE: Why You Need a 'Reverse Mentor' At Work)

Generational Perceptions Vs. Reality

At one level, all of Target’s advice appears steeped in developing a culture of respect, which is a good thing. But there is a disingenuousness that may belie that first impression, since the generational coaching suggestions don’t seem to match up with the practical realities of retail life — or, for that matter, life in most other work environments. 

The reality is, if you took the generational labels off the coaching tips, you’d simply have a list of common courtesies that could apply to everyone in the workplace. Who doesn’t want to have their talents and expertise acknowledged, their opinions solicited, and to be part of a consensual process where they will have a voice and hear the ideas of others?

Those strategies appeared in different demographic sections, yet none truly belongs more in one generational column than another.

Strengthening Multigenerational Relationships At Work

And that’s the challenge in strengthening multigenerational relationships at work. It is not about simple tips for communicating with different age groups. 

It’s about a more sophisticated understanding of the research trends and patterns that can help shape those relationships for the long-term. As workplace demographics shift dramatically over coming years, more Gen X’ers and Millennials will step into leadership roles, while boomers will increasingly face the deep and often painful challenges of handing off their power and leadership roles to others. 

The good news is that, to be successful, Millennials and Gen X'ers can benefit from the institutional knowledge and wisdom that boomers hold. Most boomers are starting to realize that their legacy is at stake, which is a strong motivator to embrace their changing role as they become supporting players.

No chart can adequately convey the sophisticated skills needed to manage all the transitions taking place in the workplace today. Nor can any list of coaching tips capture the nuances needed to successfully navigate a rapidly changing workplace.

When it’s done well, management training can provide insights to shape an understanding of a generational cohort, while emphasizing the distinction between generational patterns and individual characteristics. When it’s not, money and time are needlessly spent reinforcing stereotypes. 

Target’s intentions may have been good, but the notion that a simple list of tips can solve today’s complex workplace problems misses the mark.

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