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Motivating Diverse Teams: Leadership Styles for Every Generation

In contemporary work environments, it is not uncommon for leaders to oversee and manage four generations of employees (Baby Boomers, Generations X, Y, and Z) – with each generation having their own distinctive set of characteristics and profile. The term generation refers to a distinct group (cohort) of people who share the same birth years and experiences of historical events (e.g., social, economic, technological, and political), as they move through time together (Phillips, 2016, p. 197). When cohorts share similar life experiences, peer personality or generational characteristics are formed. Generational characteristics include enduring attitudes, mindsets, preferences, values, and behaviors that develop a set of lenses which cohorts view ensuing life experiences through. These lenses shape different aspects of a generation’s life, to include their attitudes towards organizations and management, their workplace relationships, their perceptions of workplace ethics, their needs and wants from a workplace, their preferred communication styles, how they spend their money, and how they perceive their roles and responsibilities in a marriage and family environment (Kupperschmidt, 2000, p. 66).

Since there is a lack of consensus on identifying what the cutoff of birth years are for the four generations, the birth years defined by Zemke et al., (2003) and Wilson et al., (2017) for each generation will be used. The Baby Boomer Generation (1946-1960) is labeled as workaholics and expected to stay with the same company that first hired them for their careers. The characteristics of this cohort include optimism, team orientation, and focus on personal growth, desires, interests, and health. Generation X (1961-1980) is known for their independence and goal-oriented mindset, but also considered the lost generation because Baby Boomers often overshadow them. This is the first generation to be introduced to globalization and transformations in the form of communication. Generation Y (1981-1995) is the first generation to be introduced to digital technologies where they can access information quickly via the Internet. This cohort is tech-savvy, focused on multi-tasking, and ambitious in nature (Sujansky, 2010, pp. 369-382; Zemke et al., 2003, p. 3, pp. 16-24). Generation Z (1996-2012), also known as the digital natives, have experienced rapid and constant technological changes (Wilson et al., 2017, p. 1). The launch of the iPhone in 2007, combined with the advancements of other mobile technologies, enabled this cohort to always stay connected via social media and the internet. This ability to access information and communication anytime and anywhere quickly and easily has influenced how Gen Z interacts with the world and one another. More time will need to go by before researchers can fully comprehend the effects of this cohort as they are just entering the workforce (Dimock, 2019, para. 12). In the meantime, the research available points to significant shifts in this generation, in terms of their behaviors, attitudes, lifestyles, and work-related habits and preferences (Dimock, 2019, para. 13; Singh & Dangmei, 2016, pp. 2-4).

The convergence of four generations under the same roof requires leaders to examine their leadership styles to ensure that it is appropriate and fitting to meet each generation's requirements and unique characteristics. Klawitter (1985), states that “Current research establishes that, in general, a leader's effectiveness is based upon leadership style, a composite of qualities that elicits unity and productivity from subordinates, and an appropriate match of this behavior to the situation” (p. 10). Burns (1978) states the following:

A leader induces followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations—the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations—of both leaders and followers and the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders see and act on their own and their followers’ values and motivations (p. 9).

The aging process of society juxtaposed with the advent of Generation Z, introduces a significant demographic phenomenon that is shifting the structure of the labor force. Modern day organizations consist of employees representing a multi-faceted set of generations that include Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z (Gadomska–Lila, 2020, p. 27). Such age differences in the workplace create a fertile environment for skewed perceptions and stereotypes that fuel misunderstanding and conflicts between the young and old workers (Rudolph et al., 2015, p. 25). If leaders do not make great efforts to understand and manage these differences, organizations are at risk of having employees who are not fully motivated to maximize their skills and abilities or, worse, suffer from increased employee turnover. With the latest generation entering the workforce, leaders have a unique opportunity where they can strengthen the interrelationships and bridge the gap between generations, that is, by learning and respecting generational differences and adopting leadership styles that resonate with a multi-generational workforce. Having this background and management problem as the backdrop, the following research question was developed for a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA): What leadership styles are most effective in motivating a multi-generational workforce?


There were three findings identified during the assessment. Finding 1 focuses on the different and unique characteristics that make up each generation (e.g., Baby Boomers and Generations X, Y, and Z), and how these different characteristics may influence each generation’s attitudes towards organizations, work values and preferences, and management styles. Finding 2 focuses on the motivating factors that are specific to and valued by each generation. Finding 3 focuses on the how each generation varies in their perceptions and preferences of authority and leadership styles. These findings work in unity to provide leaders with valuable insights and information regarding the generational gaps, motivating factors, and perceptions and preferences of authority and leadership styles across four generations of employees in the workplace. Organizational leaders must recognize that every generation is distinct, and they must learn to adjust their leadership styles to meet and support the unique needs of each cohort.


Recommendations for Management and Scholarship

A common theme that was identified across the included studies is that each generation has its own distinct motivating factors, leadership preferences, employee preferences, and drivers. While some generations overlap, it’s important to recognize that there is no “one size fits all” solution to provide what a multi-generational workforce needs to keep them engaged, productive, happy, and motivated. Instead, companies need to employ effective communication and gather feedback from employees to understand and focus on how they can best engage with each employee.

Leaders need to request feedback from their employees on a regular basis to elicit the factors that are most important to them in the workplace, which motivators provide them with the greatest sense of fulfillment, which leadership styles they best respond to, and which attitudes they mesh well with. Once these factors are better understood, leaders can take appropriate actions to tailor their messaging, adjust the workplace environment, or provide accommodations to incentivize employees by meeting the intrinsic motivational needs that will allow their employees to perform at their best.

Recommendation 1: Leadership Assessment

 Companies should assess what leadership styles leaders employ within the company as well as preferred leadership styles of less senior employees and attempt to match those employees with managers they would be best suited for. This could be accomplished using annual surveys (one for managers and one for non-managers) distributed to all employees within the company. Based on survey results, employees would be assigned to a “people manager” that aligns with the leadership styles, leadership qualities, and attitudes that they respond best to.

  • Step 1. Develop a survey questionnaire for current managers that can elicit and identify their leadership styles, behaviors, and qualities.

  • Step 2. Develop a survey questionnaire for non-managers to elicit and identify ideal leadership styles, qualities, and attitudes to which each employee will respond best.

  • Step 3. Distribute survey questionnaires to employees throughout the organization.

  • Step 4. Use the data collected to match and assign people managers to employees who are best suited to their respective leadership styles.

  • Step 5. Collect feedback from employees on an ongoing basis to evaluate the effectiveness and happiness of employees and to understand how well their needs are being met.

Recommendation 2: Motivating Factors

Each generation is primarily motivated by different factors, but even within a generation, individuals may have specific needs or causes that stand out and provide a deep sense of purpose for them. It’s imperative that a company understand these driving forces since intrinsic motivating factors typically help employees form a much deeper connection with the work they’re doing. Even though company policies may be the same for all employees, there are typically certain factors that can be leveraged to provide specialized needs to certain employees, such as a more flexible work schedule, more focus on individual recognition, providing enhanced training opportunities, or teaming high performing employees who enjoy working collaboratively together to solve a problem.  

  • Step 1. Collect feedback from employees to understand what drives them. What are their primary motivating factors?  What is most important for them?

  • Step 2. Have managers align each employee’s work with their values.

    • Look for shared opportunities between employees and managers to achieve common goals (Example: If a Generation Y employee is motivated by training for career development, that employee’s manager could identify training opportunities for skills that would benefit the team and the company as a whole).

    • Frame the work that employees are performing in a way that espouses the benefits that most inspire them to achieve success (Example: If a Generation Y employee is motivated strongly by social contributions, their manager could look for ways to frame the work around any social or environmental benefits instead of economic or efficiency benefits).

Measuring Outcomes

Metrics to measure employee efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction of employees should be collected and measured to ensure the recommendations provided result in the desired impact. Select metrics can be collected in the same surveys proposed above, provided to employees on an annual basis, and compared to previous surveys to measure the difference after corrective actions are implemented. Other metrics can be gleaned from client surveys, analysis of timecards, and one-on-one conversations/feedback sessions with employees.

Questions on the employee survey should revolve around whether employees feel appreciated, if they feel recognized by their leaders and/or peers for the work that they accomplish, if they feel leaders are providing effective, timely, and useful communication, if they feel they have sufficient direction from their leaders, whether they have the necessary flexibility in their schedule, if they feel motivated by a deeper sense of purpose in their work and if they feel satisfied overall. Employees should be requested to provide a numerical response to most questions (e.g., provide a rating from 1-10) to compare satisfaction to previous survey results, but space should also be provided for comments, suggestions for improvement, and complaints or reasons for dissatisfaction. These metrics are recommended to measure the impact of the proposed recommendations above. If employee engagement and satisfaction are not improving, then it may be necessary to realign select individuals under different leaders.


Based on the research, there is not one, or two, or three leadership style(s) that effectively motivate a multi-generational workforce. Rather, leaders must adapt their leadership styles to effectively manage the needs and wants of a diverse workforce. When managing a multi-generational workforce, adhering to a leadership style(s) will not be effective because of the pronounced distinctions between cohorts that influence their attitudes and behaviors at work. Motivating employees to get the most productivity out of them is a huge undertaking because there is no one-size-fits-all leadership style that will meet and support the needs of every generation. Findings indicate that each generation brings their own set of unique characteristics that shape their work preferences, attitudes, and values. In addition, each generation is not solely motivated by money, but has other motivational factors such as teamwork, work-life balance, retirement plans, etc. Finally, findings indicate that different generations have different attitudes towards authority and ideal leadership qualities. Hence, it is essential for leaders to try and thoroughly understand the mindsets of each generation, to include their needs and wants in the workplace. Taking this information, leaders should adjust their leadership styles to meet the distinct needs of each generation of employees in the workplace.


Dimock, M. (2019). Defining generations: Where millennials end and generation Z begins. Pew Research Center.

Gadomska-Lila, K. (2020). Value systems of various generations. Zarządzanie Zasobami Ludzkimi, 133(2), 27–40.

Klawitter, P. (1985). The relationship between principal’s leadership style and teacher job satisfaction (dissertation).

Kupperschmidt, B. (2000). Multigeneration employees: Strategies for effective management. The Health Care Manager, 19(1), 65–76.

Phillips, M. (2016). Embracing the Multi-generational Nursing Team. Medsurg Nursing, 25(3), 197–199.  

Singh, A., & Dangmei, K. (2016). Understanding the Generation Z: The future workforce. South -Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, 3(3), 1–5.

Sujansky, J. (2010). Leading Across Generations. In The ASTD leadership handbook (pp. 369–382). ASTD Press.

Wilson, M., George, A., & Veigas, A. (2017). Prospective trends in HRM of Generation Z (pp. 1–13).

Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at work: Managing the clash of veterans, boomers, xrs, and nexters in your workplace. AMACOM.

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Great post, Lai Yan. Please continue to share this with a summary article on LinkedIn, and maybe at other open source sites. Good luck, Dr. Bob

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