Mind the Gap – Workplace Communication that Straddles Generations – Ben Lovell

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Every generation brings something new to the workplace, and millennials are no exception. As a group, they tend to be highly educated, love to learn, and grew up with the Internet and digital tools in a way that can be highly useful when leveraged properly. – Kathryn Minshew, founder of The Muse

A friend and I recently discussed the efficacy of dividing the population into generational cohorts.  He argued that the differentiation was too arbitrary and the conclusions too broad to be of much significance.  He viewed the labels as largely fodder for marketing and political tactics. Erroneous at best. Divisive at worst.

I respectfully disagree.  While certainly broad generalizations, generational labels can be useful tools for understanding behavior patterns influenced by historical context.  Put another way, consider the example of two theoretical people: a 20-year-old in 1970 and a 20-year-old in 2000. The two would share similarities, but would have experienced drastically different social, political and economic influences.

In the context of workplace communication, a 20-year-old employee is not just 30 years younger than a 50-year-old supervisor.  The younger employee is influenced by cultural drivers never experienced by the older colleague.  It is only through increased knowledge of these disparities that we can bridge communication gaps in the workplace.  

In this article, I’ll break down six tips for successful communication between colleagues of different generations.  First let’s take a brief look at who we’re talking about:

Millennials / Gen Z (<38 years old)

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the working world consists of adults age 18 – 58.  As most studies consider the leading edge of the Millennial generation to be 1981 (currently 38), we can put roughly half of the working world into this younger group.

Characterized by optimism and open-mindedness, this pair of generations has grown up during a time of exponential technological boom.  Unlike their parents, they eschew traditional categorization (e.g. good vs. evil / us vs. them) in favor of individual analysis.

Although they entered the workforce with a higher level of education than previous generations, they are frustrated by the scarcity of careers in their field.  They are saddled with and stressed by significant student loan debt.  Due in part to this financial insecurity, they rent more than they own and generally prefer access to services over ownership of products. Similarly, they favor the flexibility of jobs to the stability of careers.  

Baby Boomers / Gen X (38-73 years old)

The direct offspring of the WWII / Depression-Era ‘Traditionalists’, Boomers and Gen X largely believe in success derived from hard work.  They have seen more economic, political and social swings and are therefore more measured in their reactions.

They experienced the advent of personal technology as adults and are typically warier of new developments.  They are private, resistant to trends and put more value on personal interactions.  In the workplace, these generations are more focused on developing a career defined by steady upward growth.

Now, with that (admittedly cursory) summary under our belts, let’s explore tips for successful communication across the generational gap.

Three Tips for Communicating with Older Colleagues

Avoid Abbreviations and Lingo

Sure, language is dynamic, and slang is as old as communication itself.  That said, recent years have seen an escalation of lingo and shorthand abbreviations.  From emoticons 😊 to initialisms like ‘lmao’ and ‘smh’, this pseudo-language is facilitated largely by the incorporation of personal technology.

As a younger person striving to maximize positive interactions at work, it’s best to leave all of this jargon in your personal life.  There are three significant reasons for this:

  • It may make you seem immature or unprofessional.
  • It may come off as rude.
  • It may not be understood.

All of these consequences are potentially detrimental to workplace efficiency and certainly to professional aspirations. Stick to complete sentences and words that your spell check doesn’t underline.

Show Some Face

This is another tip necessitated by the boom in personal technology.  There is a major generational divide when it comes to preferred communication.  Members of older generations place significant value in personal interactions, either face-to-face or over-the-phone. They see emails, texts and other forms of digital communication as lacking the humanizing elements necessary to build relationships.

In contrast, Millennials and Gen Zers aren’t bothered by (or prefer) the quasi-anonymity of digital communication.  They value the ability it gives them to multitask and respond at their discretion. For these younger employees, I suggest taking time for in-person meetings or phone calls when you can.  Pay attention to how the older employee is initiating interaction. If they always respond to your emails with a phone call, consider picking up the phone next time.

Ask Advice

Another generational disconnect comes from the fact that Millennials tend to be independent, preferring to find answers through research or their own experiences.  At the same time, members of the Gen X and Baby Boom generations pride themselves on their ‘open door’ mentality. They see themselves as an important resource that younger employees should take advantage of.

Asking advice from an older colleague or supervisor can provide simultaneous benefits.  It is an indirect way to show much-appreciated deference and respect (without overtly flattering) and helps to strengthen the relationship.  The second benefit… Well, you might just get some good advice. Simple as that.

Three Tips for Communicating with Younger Colleagues

Give Ample Feedback

Millennials and Gen Zers entered the workforce at a time characterized by rapid results and instantaneous answers.  Want to know the current temperature in NYC? The 25th President of the United States?  What is a good credit card for my business?  Answers to all of those queries are seconds away.  In the workplace, younger employees want a real-time metric of how they’re performing.  In other words, they want to be coached.

Whether this feedback comes in the form of an email response to a report they sent or a passing remark, younger employees often deliver better results when they are evaluated frequently on their performance.  The added benefit? You give yourself the opportunity to reinforce good behavior and redirect activity that’s off-goal.

Communicate Electronically

Just as younger generations need to be encouraged toward in-person interaction, older employees should explore the value of swapping a few calls or office visits for their electronic counterparts.  If a younger colleague sends a text, push back on your initial impulse and consider responding in kind.

The point (of this article anyway) is not whether or not in-person interactions are superior to electronic ones. The key here is to communicate in a way that best facilitates an exchange of honest information and strengthens professional relationships.

Appeal to Ideals

‘Work isn’t supposed to be fun’ and ‘It’s just a job’ are not phrases that ring true to younger generations.  Whereas traditionalists may have viewed a career as a means to financially provide for their family, Millennials are generally of the mindset that their work should be self-fulfilling or beneficial to some larger purpose. Millennials are idealists.

Here’s an exercise.  Imagine delegating a task and having the employee simply ask ‘Why?’.  Putting aside initial irritation, see if you can answer that theoretical question. If you can find ways to put assignments in the context of a grander plan, you may communicate more effectively with younger colleagues.

Using Generalities as a Tool

In closing, I want to make a quick point about generalities.  We live in a time when the concept of stereotyping and generalizing entire groups has come under harsh scrutiny and often been rejected as narrow-minded and harmful.  There is extremely good reason for that. I fully support an emphasis on recognizing individual traits.

However, to ignore the information presented by the study of large groups, such as generational cohorts, is to reject powerful tools that can facilitate communication.  As long as we use these resources as general cues and not absolutes, they only help to invite empathy and bridge gaps between people.

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A firm believer that freedom of information improves business, travel and life, freelance writer Ben Lovell is committed to sharing best practices.  

Read more of his articles at the Gothic Optimist.