Addressing Multiple Generations in the Workplace 

The Office LogoPicture the scene; you have a recent graduate working alongside her seasoned 58-year-old colleague on a critical project.  Both are working toward the same goal, yet each come with a different set of expectations and views of the task at hand.  “Stacy’s new ideas are clashing with what Bill’s many years of experience tells him and tensions start building.  What happens next?

It’s safe to say that workforce trends have shifted over the past decade.  For the first time in history we have five generations working side by side; Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials.  Instead of embracing the many perspectives, we muse on how perceived differences of others hold us back from achieving “workplace Nirvana.”  You’ve heard the stereotypes: Baby Boomers are stodgy workaholics, Gen X is callously indifferent, and Millennials are lazy with a false sense of entitlement.  It’s safe to say that each generation brings its own priorities, interests and communication style.

Clearly, people of various ages view their workplace differently.  However, this is not the likely culprit for generational conflict.  The conflict has less to do with age differences than it does with miscommunication.  Whether this multi-generational workforce is viewed as happy and productive or challenging and stressful is, in large part, up to one thing – conversations.

Think about it.  No matter your age or your profession, the one thing you will have almost every day is a conversation with another human being.  No matter the generation differences we all want to have a voice and be heard.  Therefore, communication is increasingly important in present times.  Yes, it is such a cliché term.  Yet when you really think about it, each conversation has the power to either advance or derail teamwork and progress towards goals.

Thus, when it comes to addressing five generations in the workplace, focus on the common daily activity each will have: conversations.  Take for instance what Susan Scott of Fierce Conversations says,

“Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time.  While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can.  Speak and listen as if this is the most important conversation you will ever have with this person.  It could be.  Participate as if it matters.  It does.” 

Whether you are a Traditionalist, a Millennial, or anything in between; conversations are what bind people together in work and in life.  How we approach our communication with others will be a decisive factor in our success.  It is as simple and complex as that.  

Too often people hastily enter conversations through a lens of “judgment” where we are bent on winning the dialogue.  This is when we interrupt by talking over the person speaking, jump in with a declaration before the issue has been clarified, and/or respond quickly with little or no thought.  The end result with this approach is never optimum.

What we should do is silence our inner biases so to enter conversations from a place of wonder and curiosity.  This is when we resist our primal hardwiring of fight or flight and remain present in the conversation.  We seek to understand the other person’s point of view.  Rather than cast judgement, we work to identify why each side might see things differently.  This is made possible when we ask questions to frame the issue(s) at hand.

Herein lies the key to addressing multiple generations in the workforce; train your entire organization how to approach conversations with more questions than declarations.

In teamwork and in management, questions transcend all generations.  

Questions redefine relationships between people — when I am “advising” or “managing,” I am the expert.  But when I’m “asking” you for your ideas, I’m a peer.  Questions honor you as a person and communicate your value as an equal.  Ask open-ended probing questions like, “Will you help me understand things from your point of view?” or “Might there be other ways of looking at this?”

And because this asking approach changes the relationship, it also changes you.  Think of an instance when you left a conversation thinking, “Well, that was one-sided!  The whole thing was about him.”  We all hate it when others can’t stop talking about their own thoughts and ideas but we’re blind to how often we do it ourselves.

Organizations would be wise to put more emphasis on training staff how to approach and execute meaningful conversations — and it all starts with questions.  This is when the magic happens.  Individuals, teams, and their organization begin to blossom and flourish around effective communication.

Train on generational similarities, not generational differences –Emotional Intelligence and Conversational Capacity.

What is emotional intelligence?

The OfficeEmotional intelligence, or EQ, is an ability to recognize and understand our emotions so to manage our reactions.  Emotions are not a choice and you cannot manage them.  They are psychological reactions to events in life and can only affect you.  On the contrary, you can (and should) manage your reactions to these feelings.  This is where we can get into trouble because our reactions will be perceived as good or bad; and they affect everyone.

When employees are well versed in self-awareness and self-management, productive communication occurs.  This then leads to heightened conversational capacity.

What is conversational capacity?

“Conversational capacity isn’t just another aspect of effective teamwork—it defines it. A team that cannot talk about its most pressing issues isn’t really a team at all. It’s just a group of people that can’t work together effectively when it counts.” – Craig Weber, Author of Conversational Capacity

Like EQ, conversational capacity is about approaching conversations, being genuinely open, really asking, and paying attention to the other person’s response.  It’s about interrogating the issue and not the person.  When people engage in this everybody gets to advance towards their better selves, as individuals and together as a team.

While the workplace may be in constant change, one thing will remain the same, our need for communication with others.  Here at the JFC Staffing Companies we treat dialogue as a discipline.  It begins with the onboarding process when new hires go through three training sessions with me personally (CEO a.k.a. Chief Enthusiasm Officer).  The idea is to set our people up for success when communicating with others.  After all, communicating in open, balanced, meaningful ways creates winning mindsets, winning teams, and winning organizations.  Who doesn’t want that?

My closing advice to the managers reading this: Exhausting precious time and energy on all the differences between generations is futile. Focus on what each era needs, which is meaningful communication with others.  Invest in training your people to have meaningful conversations.  Once mastered, everything else seems more manageable and conquerable within multigenerational teams.

Reach out to me if you’re interested in learning more about these topics.  I offer insight/training, free of charge, to area businesses as my way of giving back to the community that I live and work in.

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Please share your thoughts in the comments section below as I learn just as much from you as you do from me. 

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