Generational Differences and Improving Communication

April 10, 2012

In 2007 Jennifer J. Deal, research scientist for the Center for Creative Leadership, wrote a book about the various generations in the workplace and how they were similar. She called the book Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground. She found that all generations are similar in the following areas:

  1. Value Structure – the values that matter most, i.e. family, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness
  2. Wanting Respect – even with slightly different definitions, we all still want to be heard and valued for our contribution
  3. Trustworthy Leaders – without trust, relationships falter, communication stops, and productivity is lost
  4. Nobody Likes Change – the stereotype says that Millennials love change, her research showed the opposite, no one generation is more or less comfortable than the others
  5. Loyalty – not a function of age, but a function of position in the organization, the higher you are the more time you work
  6. We All Want to Learn – people want to do a good job and are willing to acquire new skills to do so
  7. Everyone Likes Feedback – we want to know how we are doing comparatively

Deal said that, “The so-called generation gap is, in large part, the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding, fueled by common insecurities and the desire for clout.”

So, if we put hubris aside and strive for common ground by understanding communications methods, we’ll have a much better chance of building valuable relationships that impact the triple bottom line. Following are guidelines for communicating with Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials.

Communicating to a Traditionalist (born 1922-1945)

Because traditionalists respect authority, put duty before fun, and strictly adhere to rules, they tend to lead with a command-and-control style. They’re very directive and prefer to be communicated to formally and through the written word (think…memos). They take satisfaction in doing a job well, so make sure that you share with them how much you respect their experience. When it comes to providing feedback, no news is good news, so only approach them with something that is paramount to their performance.

Communicating to a Baby Boomer (1946-1964)

Baby boomers are known to be workaholics, desire high quality in their products and services, and aren’t afraid to question authority. They want to be collegial leaders, so working with them, as a team member is relevant and valuable. Communicate in person, but try to avoid meetings, one-to-one will be the best method. Relaying the message that their contribution is needed, reward them with money, and give them a meaningful title. Boomers work to live, so conversate with them about their work more than you do about their home lives.

Communicating to Generation X (1965-1980)

Individuals born between 1965 and 1980 want structure and direction and are often skeptical of the status quo. Because X’ers view everyone as being the same, feel free to challenge them, and communicate directly. Having a conversation immediately after an event is more relevant than waiting too long. They like hearing feedback, so give it freely, but also remember that autonomy is important to them, so inspect what you expect. To fire up small talk, feel free to talk about both personal and professional lives.

Communicating to Millennials (1981-2000)

The folks from Generation Y are always wondering about what is next. Their entrepreneurial, goals oriented, and feel comfortable with multitasking, so feel free to create participative conversations. We all know that Y’ers like to communicate electronically, so send SMS messages, e-mails, and social media wall posts. They want their work to be meaningful, so provide feedback continually and put them on teams with other bright and creative people.

With a minimum of four generations in your office, you can be sure you’ll encounter plenty of miscommunications and misunderstandings. As a leader, it is your job to wade through the distraction, improve your verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and focus on validating the other person’s experience in that moment. Validation helps to stop the fight before it begins and takes the defensiveness out of the equation. That builds trust.

Stephen R. Covey once said, “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships together.”

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