STOP the madness! Forget what you think you know about how different the age groups are from each other. It has nothing to do with differences, but success will come when people seek to understand each other. On one hand, we’ve got the young people who think the old people won’t listen to new ideas. And on the other hand, we have old people who think the young people don’t respect their experience and the system they have built. Sound right? Most of the information out there falls short because it only focuses on the difference and not how to communicate effectively between the groups.
What We Currently Think
Workplaces are much different today than they used to be, especially when it comes to multi-generational teams. There has been countless research on this subject to define the differences between the two main groups:
- Generation Y (Millenials) and Generation X
- Baby Boomers and Traditionalists
The main challenge with all of the existing information like articles from Fast Company and CBS News that are floating around is that it puts people into neat little boxes and this, in turn, causes further distance between groups. While it makes for good reading, this clash of generations is not where the focus should be. Countless articles talk about differences in values, goals, lifestyles, etc. While each group will definitely have their differences, the trick is to determine how these groups should communicate with each other. Here are a few examples of the information that is out there that perpetuating the rift. See if you have heard any of the knowledge below.
Gen X & Y:
- Lack social skills and have mainly only communicated with others while sitting at a computer, texting, or IM-ing
- Only have a virtual network – not a real one
- Lack the interpersonal skills that the Baby Boomers have because they depend on the computer so much
- Value work-life balance and would rather not work the same 9-5 hours their Boomer counterparts do
- Need to practice patience and understanding when teaching technology and new ideas to the older generation
- Rush headlong into things without thinking
- Have high expectations and don’t want to pay their dues
- Do not have loyalty to their employers
- Would prefer to wear jeans to work every day
- Are EXPERTS in new technologies and therefore should be put in charge of this component of the business
- Don’t respect authority
- Are workaholics and proud of it
- Have had technology thrust upon them
- Are stuck in their own methodologies and are unwilling to embrace new ideas
- Should focus on helping the younger generation “find their way” through mentoring and training
- Face employment challenges because of their lack of technology skills,
- Are loyal to a fault with their employers
- Are unwilling to learn from others
- Value hard work and “paying your dues.”
- Are less productive than their younger counterparts because they lack the multi-tasking skills
- Are more willing to blindly follow procedure and are not adaptable to change
When considering all of these points, you may read them and nod your head – but break them down and understand what they are truly saying. There is a young crowd coming into the workforce that think they are the next best thing and they complain that the old folks should just get out of their way. In turn, the older generation feels they are being pushed out of the way, and these newbies should pay their dues. These two groups butt heads and try and find all the ways they are fundamentally different to justify their emotions and insecurities. How is this different than it has ever been? It’s called human nature.
All of this battling has created an industry for new methodologies and ways for consultants to make money because of this. Businesses seek out new solutions to increase the effectiveness of these multi-generational teams like; reverse mentoring, social media training, and even creating more functional workplaces. Check out this article from Knoll which describes some of the Gen Y values, but claims ideas like “they value the look, feel, design and functionality of their work space.” You should not dismiss these ideas altogether, but you need to focus on what really matters.
What We Should Do
Let’s get honest. Here is what each group really needs to know about how to work with each other:
Let me speak to the Boomers for a moment about working with Generation Y
- Lack of Loyalty – Gen Y have seen their parents go through challenges at work with employers that they were loyal to for years. Because of this, they don’t want to fall into the same traps and will work to build their own brands.
- What you can do – Understand that this group is actually fiercely loyal, but they are careful with who they trust. Transparency and respect will go a long way. Let them know that they are valued and show them how you care about their future. More importantly, lay out a plan and explain the timelines that are involved. You will see that they actually do have patience if they trust you.
- Technological Expertise– Sure this group has grown up with technology and understands how to create websites and make you a “sweet” Facebook fan page. But many times they are inexperienced in business and need some direction on how to properly use technology to meet the business needs. Too often this young generation will create some amazing tools for business, but they are dismissed and fall short because they don’t understand how to create measurable results.
- What you can do – Embrace ALL the new ideas they have – listen openly. Then, clearly articulate your business goals, including budgets and revenue expectations and even have them explain how they will achieve those goals. Perhaps a quick lesson on ROI will help them understand how to quantify their ideas. Define to them exactly what you would consider success. Read my post on Social Media Strategy to get some ideas on how to do this. Give them a chance to prove their ideas, but start small. Show them how to build their personal brand within the company if they can demonstrate measurable results. This process will also get buy-in from other managers, Baby Boomers inclusive – especially if you encourage them to present new ideas using fundamental business language.
- Networking and Social Skills are Unpolished – Technology such as Facebook have pseudo-networks and focus on how many “friend-adds” and “likes” you get. While it may be well and good to have over 1000 friends on Facebook, this is not a true measure of a proper network. The young generation gets a bad rap for the assumption that they do not cultivate strong relationships. They do value close relationships, but leverage technology to stay connected. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, Gladwell articulates the rule of 150 whereby “groups under the size of 150 are more effective as they can exploit the bonds of memory and peer pressure.” This rule holds true to the young generation and if you dig into their network, you will see that they only really know a handful of the people on their lists. The challenge for this group is that they have brought some bad habits into the business world because of the informal nature of their communication tools. (Insert smiley face here)
- What you can do – Assume that they want to do a good job and don’t mean to be unprofessional. When you first started your new job, you most likely did not know the intricacies of professional communication. If you have a Gen Y in a position where they will be networking, show them how. Help them understand how other groups receive and send messages. In fact, print out this blog and give it to them. Encourage them to spend more face-time with other staff and customers. If they are in sales, teach them the value of phone calls and personal touches – and that email, IM, and Facebook are effective tools to supplement real relationships.
- Poor Work Ethic – This group will work hard if they feel there is value in what they are doing. They will not work just for the sake of working. Work/life balance is the new buzzword associated with Gen Y, but you shouldn’t be going out of your way and change your business to accommodate this. This group wants to know that they are valuable contributors and that their efforts will pay off.
- What you can do – Find a way to inspire them to do their jobs! Talk to them about the goals of the company and how their specific role plays a part. Work with them to identify how they will achieve those goals. You may find a better way to get things accomplished because of this. Perhaps having a flexible schedule or leveraging technology will work better to achieve their goals, but you should have a specific plan.
- Bunch of “Know-it-alls” – Since the beginning of time, young people fresh into their careers have been know-it-alls. They have something to prove and they have fragile egos. The Gen Y group is no different, even taking into consideration the theories saying they have had everything handed to them. They bring new ideas to the table, especially around technology. They will also question the system and why things are the way they are.
- What you can do – Encourage them to share their ideas but show them when it is appropriate to do so. Teach them how to properly articulate their ideas completely. Also teach them that questioning and listening skills are the most valuable skills in their arsenal. Ask them for ideas on projects and then explain to them how that information is useful. Be inclusive and you will glean valuable insights. Do not tell them, “We do that just because it’s how we’ve always done it.” They will feel like you are stifling them. And most importantly, remember that these are not your children – they are valuable, contributing members of your team. Treat them as such.
Now I would like to speak to the Gen Y about working with the Boomers.
- Stuck in Their Ways– This is a common complaint about Boomers that I hear from Gen Y’s when they get into the workforce. The Baby Boomers are unwilling to change, blindly follow procedures, and say, “Because that’s just how we’ve always done it.” They are not open to new ideas and stifle creativity. But what you must fully understand and respect is that they built this system. To them, when you question their ways, you are essentially telling them they built it wrong. They are open to new ideas, but they must make good business sense.
- What you can do – This is where you will get the biggest win when working with an older co-worker. You must RESPECT that they did build this system you are working in, no matter how many new ideas you may have. You must ask questions about how they have solved problems in the past and ask for advice. There is much to be learned from those who have gone before you. For example, suppose you are a junior salesperson and you have an older co-worker you don’t get along with. The first thing you should do is say, “Can I ask your advice? I have this client who I am trying to sell to and I am having some challenges. In your experience, how would you deal with this?” Then let them tell you their ideas and you better listen. Paraphrase back your understanding and then go and use at least one of their ideas with your client. Go back to your co-worker afterwards, thank them, take them for lunch, or anything show you appreciate their help. You can then say, “I went and applied that knowledge you gave me and it went like this…” Show them you understand why their ideas worked so well. Then you can tell them how you incorporated your own new ideas into the process. This works wonders and will ultimately gain you a champion for any new ideas you may have. This older co-worker could be the one that helps you sell your ideas to other older co-workers and managers.
- Technologically Illiterate– The older generation may not be as tech savvy as you, because they have gotten this far without it. They also did not grow up with all of the gadgets and tools you have been accustomed to. They may also consider this as unnecessary spending.
- What you can do – You may have ideas on how technology can increase productivity, but you must demonstrate it and substantiate it. No matter how hard you try and explain new technology to them, they won’t understand unless you show them. And you must be able to prove tangible results. Also, do you research and show how others are using it to their advantage
- Work Too Hard – The older generation began their business careers in a 9-5 world and for the most part it still is. And in today’s knowledge economy, it is not always about how many hours you log as much as the results you create. A Results Oriented Workforce can be an amazingly powerful thing, but it still takes work. Part of being “experienced” in business is the realization that success does indeed come from working hard. You may be working hard, but sometimes your older co-workers perceive you are not because of a lack of visibility during the 9-5. And perception is reality.
- What you can do – Increase your visibility of the amount of work you are actually getting done. If you are working late or from home, send email updates or questions to your older team members. Also, don’t be on Facebook at work if you don’t have to. Ie. You are managing the social media program, or you are interacting with customers. Your co-workers want to know that you take your job just as seriously as they do, so if they know you work extra hours and you are focused on your job, they will ease up on the whole “pay your dues” talk.
These are not new ideas. Communicating between generations is no different than the classic battle between sales and marketing. It is recognizing the different viewpoints and challenges each group has and seeking to understand. Also, not all points apply to all people – there are many Boomers who are great with technology, and many Gen Ys who are expert networkers.
Regardless of their age or position, people want to belong and feel as though they are providing value and are recognized. Your corporate culture should reflect this. Go back to the fundamentals – does any of this sound like NEW knowledge?
When you are faced with cross-generational challenges, stop and ask yourself if you are doing everything you can to empathise with the other person. Have the confidence to say, “I don’t fully understand what you are saying, so please help me.” By combining the best of those who built this system and those who want to put their own new stamp on things, we can create some amazing results!