What You Said Is Not What I Heard: Generational Crosstalk & Why You Should Care

By Karen Arnold and Kevin Williams

John, age 25, text messages Jill, age 45 that he would like to make some changes to the proposal they just completed. Jill sits fuming at her desk thinking, “Who does John think he is sending me a text message to change the proposal? At least he could have had the decency to talkyes no talk to me face-to-face.” What is going on here? Generations pushing each other’s communication hot buttons. In the past – you, as a leader, may have paid little or no attention to the age span of employees working for you. With four generations in the workplace, circumstances have changed.

Some other dramatic changes we will experience are: 1) a globally aging population, 2) increased technology that will change our products and services and how we deliver them, 3) people extending their working careers, but not necessarily staying in their current positions, 4) a significant shortage of employees for the next 7-12 years. These factors add to the complexity of recruiting, retaining and motivating employees.

To better understand the communication disconnects that are occurring in your workplace it is important to recognize why each generation communicates as they do. To help facilitate this understanding, let us review each generation and what influenced them during their formative years.

Traditionalists — Born 1900 to 1945 – Traditionalists have worked longer than any of the other generations. They were influenced by the great depression, which instilled in most members of this generation the ability to live within limited means. They believe in saving for a rainy day and they also believe that you stay with an organization through person with flagthick and thin, and have extreme loyalty to those in leadership positions. Traditionalists are loyal, hardworking, financially conservative and faithful to institutions. This generation is most comfortable with face-to face communication. They are more formal in their communication style than the other three generations.

Quick tips to effectively communicate with Traditionalists – Appreciate information given to them in person. They are very motivated by clear direction given to them by their supervisor. They find emails to be an ineffective mode of communication in most instances. Leadership tips include:

• Acknowledge experience and expertise
• Provide them opportunities to mentor younger employees
• Discuss how their contributions affect the organization
• Focus on the personal touch

Baby Boomers — Born 1946 to 1964 – Influenced by the assassination of President Kennedy, Vietnam and the “Pill”, Baby Boomers have always felt compelled to change the system. Upon entering the work force, Boomers challenged the status quo. As a result, they are responsible for many of the rights and opportunities now taken for granted. peace signBecause of their large numbers, Boomers faced competition from each other for jobs. They all but invented the 60-hour workweek, figuring that long hours and hard work was one way to rise above the pack and get ahead. Their sense of who they are is deeply connected to their career achievements. They are now looking to change their careers and do something else as they move toward, what in the past has been traditional retirement age. Boomers prefer verbal over written communication; call them on the phone rather than sending an email.

Quick tips to effectively communicate with Boomers – While they are most comfortable with face-to-face communication, a phone call is usually preferable to an email. They spent much of their working life without today’s technology and still are most comfortable with face-to-face, phone calls and interoffice memos. They differ from the traditionalists in that they want to be part of the decision-making, not just given direction. Leadership tips include:

• Discuss how they’re making a difference
• Assign challenging projects
• Provide public recognition and perks for performance
• This is the “Sandwich Generation” and you need to support them with their diverse responsibilities

Generation X — Born 1965 to 1980 – Generation X’ers were influenced by divorce rates that tripled when they were children, both parents working and being the first latch key kids. They are technologically savvy, having ushered in the era of video games and personal computers during their formative years. Watching their parents being laid off after years of dedicated service instilled a sense of distrust of institutions. Because they do not expect employer loyalty, Gen X’er’s see no problem changing jobs to advance tv personprofessionally.

In contrast to the Baby Boomers’ overtime work ethic, generation X’ers believe that work is not the most important thing in their lives. They are resourceful and hardworking, but once 5 o’clock hits, they would rather pursue other interests. An X’er is very comfortable communicating with technology such as email and text messaging.
Quick tips to effectively communicate with Generation X – Are used to getting feedback quickly by communicating through emails and text messaging. They want timely communication and feedback and are equally comfortable providing the same to others. One of the common complaints we hear from Generation X’ers is they do not feel they are listened to in the workplace. Leadership tips include:

• Do not micromanage
• Give candid, timely feedback
• Encourage informal, open communication
• Use technology to communicate
• Provide learning opportunities and mentoring

Generation Y — Born 1981 to 1999 – Many in this generation are still in school, but the oldest Y’s are just now entering the work force. This generation has had access to cell phones, pagers and personal computers all their lives. They have also been influenced by watching natural disasters, riots and other tragedies occurring all over the world live and in color right from the comfort of their living room.stress person

Generation Y’s are eager to learn and enjoy questioning things. They are confident and have high self-esteem. They are collaborators and favor teamwork, having functioned in groups in school, organized sports and extracurricular activities from a very young age. They reject the notion that they have to stay within the rigid confines of a job description. Expect them to keep their career options open. Generation Y’s will think nothing of making career changes and/or building parallel careers. If you call them instead of emailing or text messaging them, you are wasting their time. These folks are excellent at multi-tasking, they are most comfortable answering an email while working on a spread sheet and listening to their IPOD.

Quick tips to effectively communicate with Generation Y – This generation has grown up with cell phones, text messaging, emails and live electronic chats. For this generation “My Space” is the modern day version of the community bulletin board or the local hang out (think of Mel’s in American Graffiti). The difference is they are talking to people across the world, not just people across the street. Generation Y’ers are most comfortable with communication they can conduct while taking on two or three other tasks simultaneously. Leadership tips include:

• Provide good supervision and structure
• Communicate clear objectives and expectations
• Emphasize their ability to make a difference
• Use technology to deliver information
• Assign work that is interesting, meaningful, and important
• Assist them with career planning

One-size-fits all communication and leadership is not effective given this new paradigm in the workplace. Both you as an employer and your employees need to understand and value the communication style of each generation. The quick tips provided will assist you effectively communicate and lead each generation.

When facilitating our “Power and Challenge of Four” workshops we are consistently impressed with the fact that most participants are moved by the influences that have shaped the other generations. We also find that participants are willing to modify their style to better meet the needs of others.

The most successful organizations find a way to let every generation be heard. They recognize that no one has all the answers. This appreciation of generational diversity allows each group to contribute and be a part of the growth of the organization. Once leadership understands this, it can help open up communication at all levels of the organization. As we said, this is the first time in American history we have had four generations in the workplace. While this presents challenges, it also presents opportunities to utilize a broad spectrum of skills, abilities, and experiences that can contribute to the overall success of an organization.

Karen Arnold and Kevin Williams, FutureDecisions® LLC, have recognized the need for dramatically different work practices to meet the unique challenges of today’s workplace. To contact Karen and Kevin, call 916-812-6033.

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If you would like additional information on this topic or others, please contact your Human Resources department or Lighthouse Consulting Services LLC, 3130 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Santa Monica, CA 90403, (310) 453-6556, dana@lighthouseconsulting.com & our website: www.lighthouseconsulting.com.

Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC provides a variety of services, including in-depth work style assessments for new hires & staff development, team building, interpersonal & communication training, career guidance & transition, conflict management, 360s, workshops, and executive & employee coaching. Other areas of expertise: Executive on boarding for success, leadership training for the 21st century, exploring global options for expanding your business, sales and customer service training and operational productivity improvement.

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