By: Leah Georges, PhD, MLS
For the first time in America’s history, there are four (and soon to be 5) generations interacting in the workplace. These generations are commonly referred to as the Veterans (1922 – 1943), Baby Boomers (1944 – 1960), Generation X (1961 – 1980), Millennials (1981 – 2000), and Generation Z (born after 2000). Although each generation spans approximately 20 years, a generation has a shared societal history, some common values, and what some believe to be a collective discontent with the other generations!
If you take a moment and open your favorite internet search engine and type in a phrase such as ‘generations at work,’ you will likely find articles, blogs, and books about how generations simply cannot peacefully coexist in the office! Words and phrases such as “clash,” “warfare,” or “generational divide,” are common and unfortunately, these overstated notions about generations at work have done little to actually improve our office relationships!
While the academic literature is not yet clear about whether measurable differences exist between generations, when it comes to workplace attitudes and behaviors, generations do matter. Think about your own workplace—have you had communication challenges with employees from another generation? Does the Millennial work ethic frequently come up as a hot topic in informal conversations? Generations think differently, dress differently, and often act differently both in and out of the workplace. However, a leader who makes sweeping policy and leadership decisions based on generational stereotypes alone is bound to find him or herself limiting an organization’s talent base!
How can a leader encourage effective engagement and communication across a generationally diverse office? In my conversations with successful leaders across different types and sizes of organizations, I have heard stories about generational conflicts, but more often, instances of how generations have come together to create successful, thriving work environments. Here are several things that leaders can do today to embrace the generationally diverse work environment:
Acknowledge and embrace each generation’s value differences. I saw a talk recently by Curt Steinhorst, President of Promentum Group, a communication consultancy and he shared that “Millennials will work hard. They just won’t work hard for the same reasons!” It is a profoundly accurate statement—each generation is willing to help make your organization strong, but they are simply motivated by different value systems. Baby boomers grew up in a time where sacrifice was an honorable and expected value and thus, they tend to be fiercely loyal to an organization and in turn, its leadership. On the other hand, millennials grew up in an era where a cultural shift towards increasing children’s self-esteem resulted in an “everyone gets a ribbon” generation. As a result, many millennials desire consistent and constant feedback and an opportunity to share their ideas and concepts with their organization’s leaders. Leaders who embrace each generation’s unique motivations can grow, retain, and develop a diverse workplace in a way that leaders with a one-size-fits-all approach simply cannot.
Create a culture of mentorship. To make this even more specific—create a culture of generation-to-generation mentorship. Each employee in an organization has a niche and often, that niche is related to a generational cohort. According to Gallup, by age 68, only about 1/3 of baby boomers are still in the workforce, including just 16% who are working full time. In other words, in the next several years, much of an organization’s wisdom and history will be walking out the door. A leader who creates a sound mentoring system in which the newest employees learn from the most seasoned professionals—and vice versa—creates a shared culture of mentorship and one that provides important succession planning for an organization.
Encourage flexibility in communication. Recently, I had the pleasure of watching a real “a-ha” moment happen for an employee at one of my workshops. She, a member of Generation X, worked for a large insurance organization and expressed some frustration with one of her clients. The client, she explained was a millennial who never returned her phone calls and instead, replied to her voicemails with an email. Over the course of some conversation with the group, it was clear that this was not a unique phenomenon! Many of the workshop participants shared similar sentiments about communication challenges. In this instance, the woman’s client had demonstrated that his preferred method of communication was email. Instead of meeting the client in his preferred method of communication, she continued to practice inside her comfort zone—the phone call! What would have happened if she had met the client where he was in his preferences and simply replied to the email with an email? Less frustration and perhaps a better relationship with that client! Practicing a willingness to be flexible in our communication practices leads to a focus shift from the generation to the individual client or colleague. Leaders who foster communication flexibility in the workplace, perhaps by providing communication training or modeling, acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all communication approach does not work.
Individualize your approach. I have never had a conversation with a generation, but I have had many interactions and conversations with individuals who happen to come from a specific generational cohort. Stereotypes, or oversimplified ideas about a particular group or thing, provide an opportunity to practice a cognitive shortcut—a quick decision about how to react to or with another person or thing. However, these shortcuts often lead us astray and often result in oversimplified and inaccurate ideas about a particular group. Generations are no exception. I communicate via text message with several clients in their 80s and have a dear millennial friend who will only pay with cash because she “does not trust the banks,”—a perception not common to either generation. My point is this—create unique and specific relationships with each person you have the opportunity to work with. Make no assumptions about his or her value system, motivation for coming to work each day, or professional or personal goals. A leader who encourages these one-on-one relationships and a focus on each employee or client’s unique needs and values creates an environment for high performing teams to thrive.
Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Generational communication at work is no exception. If leaders can meet people—clients, employees, and team members—where they are in their unique professional journey, the multigenerational office will thrive!
Leah Georges, PhD, MLS is an Assistant Professor in the online Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership program at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.