Bridging the Generational Communication Gap

September 2015 - By Beth Mahler - FocusED 2015 | Issue 2 - The fundamental differences in how various age groups approach work and communication are becoming more obvious, creating workplace rifts and affecting productivity.¹ The characteristics of each generation are influenced by many factors including social events, economic cycles, political events, technology, and acts of terrorism. These influences play a defining role in how a generation perceives themselves and views others. It also results in different communication styles. These communication gaps create ineffectiveness and adversely affect organizations if ignored. In fact, one in three employees wastes approximately five hours a week in conflict due to such generational misunderstandings. It can also lead to strengths and skills being overlooked and under-utilized. To counteract this, employers need to be knowledgeable about multi-generational characteristics and understand the gaps between these groups. This knowledge will allow them to optimize employee capabilities, leverage their strengths, and maximize their effectiveness. The key to working amicably across several generations rests in the ability to understand how each generation defines four essential elements:

  1. Respect
  2. Recognition
  3. Motivation
  4. Work values

So, how are these concepts expressed? What motivates each of them and makes them tick differently from you or me?

Generational Characteristics

1920-1945: Traditionalists

Generally speaking, Traditionalists value safety and security. Key characteristics include hard work, practicality, loyalty, strict morals, and law & order. When it comes to establishing a work-life balance, it is clear work is central and the ultimate priority.

Insight: Traditionalists want to work where there is a sense of security and the safety of an income.

Motivation: Job security. Traditionalists need to be responsible and contribute to the team. They commonly accept whatever role they are given. The company is the first priority ahead of personal desires.

“Looking back, I can recall that the grown-ups all seemed to have a sense of purpose that was evident even to someone as young as four, five, or six. Whatever else was happening in our family or neighborhood, there was something greater connecting all of us, in large ways and small.” —Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, Random House, 1998

1946-1964: The Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers are optimistic, ambitious, and less formal than the previous generation. President Obama, born in 1961, gave his “Yes we can…” speech in 2008 that was a prime example of this optimism. This generation prefers their communication to be one-on-one and face-to-face. In addition, they tend to respect authority, don’t like conflict, and they presume everyone else’s values are the same.

Insight: Baby Boomers want to make the most of their opportunities.

Motivation: Leaving a legacy. They desire to build something that is bigger and better than before. They also crave opportunities to fulfill their personal ambitions.

1965-1980: Gen X

Gen Xers value the freedom to be oneself. They are concerned with being true to themselves and achieving self-fulfillment. They focus on the notion that happiness is achieved by living and working true to their core values first. It follows that they are more loyal to one’s self and less loyal to society, the direct opposite of Traditionalists. David Beckham, the famous soccer star born in 1975, opted to miss a practice session in 2000 to care for his sick son. Given his priorities and role as a father, this decision made perfect sense to him. However, it was viewed as being disloyal by the team manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, born around 1940 and a Traditionalist. Sir Ferguson had Beckham dropped from the Manchester United team, noting that Beckham had not been fair to his teammates.

Insight: Gen X wants to work in ways that keep them faithful to their individual values.

Motivation: Flexibility. They wish to have the freedom to work however and wherever it suits them best. They want their roles and physical work locations adjusted to meet their desires and need for self-development.

“With each passing year, these young men and women [from Gen X] are gradually but surely making their mark. As a group, they aren’t what older people wish they were, but rather what they themselves know they need to be: street-smart survivalists clued into the game of life the way it really gets played, searching for simple things that work in a cumbersome society.” —Neil Howe and William Strauss, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? Vintage Books, 1993.

1981-2000: Gen Y / Millennials

Gen Y is a more confident and tolerant generation. They were fortunate enough to be born during a time of global success. Their parents have been able to indulge them thanks to fewer economic pressures. This sense of self-confidence has caused Gen Y to be described as “me-centric”, slightly spoiled and having a sense of entitlement to have fun and be indulged. Gen Y is at ease with technology and prefers communicating via e-mail, text messages, or social media. They want to be acknowledged and heard; they don’t like being on teams, and they prefer to work alone. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook was born in 1984. He dropped out of Harvard University in order to pursue, what was at the time, his project or hobby. Traditionalists would believe he was abandoning this prestigious university to pursue a “fun” whim that was highly uncertain and would most likely think it was a poor choice at the time. Clearly, his entrepreneurial spirit revealed his confidence and his need to enjoy his work.

Insight: Gen Y wants work that is meaningful and fun. They will keep changing jobs until they find something that intrigues them enough to be engaged.

Motivation: Centricity. They want to be at the center of all things and, of course, have fun. It is important for them to choose work they like to do. These individuals believe they are significantly more important than the company for which they work. They think a company should be grateful they have outside activities and be supportive, and take an interest in their self-evolvement.

People born in the last two decades have begun to change corporate office culture and small businesses in much the same way they’ve influenced pop culture.” —Tom McGhee, Denver Post.

2000 and beyond: Gen Z

Gen Z was born in the technology era and are very comfortable in any digital environment both professionally and personally. This gives them an automatic advantage over previous generations who keep having to re-adapt to innovations and always changing technology. Older people are often astonished by this generation who is so tech-savvy, knowing their way around the latest devices almost by reflex, and quickly incorporating innovations almost daily. Giving back to the community and an inherent sense of caring is core to this generation. They want to do good as they spend and work.

Insight: Gen Z wants a rich life experience. They do not concern themselves with a work-life balance, undoubtedly life comes first. They value giving back and paying it forward.

Motivation: Value. They want to embed their sense of giving back within the business model. It is important to them that the company they work for is doing good, making a difference in the community and to the world, as well as earning a revenue. This generation needs to be inspired, not just motivated.

This generation is going to be much more expressive and will try to find new ways to stand out. For them, it is not about fitting in but being unique and different so brands need to push the boundaries and be more personalized.” —Megan Hartman, Red Peak.

Why is this important to you?

When the strengths of each generation are used synergistically, a competitive advantage is created, leveraging hands-on experience with innovative ideas. To accomplish this, effective communication must be used to bridge the gap. It is crucial to ensure information relay and a consistent exchange of recommendations and ideas. Workplace leaders can empower their colleagues and support opportunities to learn from one another, opening new lines of communication and encouraging new ideas. Allowing each generation to focus on integrating their respective strengths, experiences, and knowledge into improving the processes builds a strong foundation for employee encouragement and satisfaction. By understanding the generationally diverse workplace, you can more effectively draw on all the strengths of your team, which in turn makes you a stronger company. And in a marketplace where only the strong survive, you need all your team members – young and old – focused on the same objectives and working together effectively.

¹David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny. (2011). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.