When Colleagues Collide: Improving Intergenerational Relations in the Workplace
As of May 2017, there were 153.5 million full-time and part-time workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And composing those current millions, three very different generations—baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials—collide.
With communication gaps galore and the frictions inherent in day-to-day office life, the generations’ dissimilar values and work styles have led to furrowed brows on the best days and flared tempers on the worst.
Tammy Hughes is CEO of Claire Raines Associates, which offers workplace assessments, sessions, and training videos on differing generational values and how they influence work styles, communication, project completion—and your business’s overall productivity.
“The similarities [between generations] don’t cause the hiccups in the workspace; it’s the differences that do,” Hughes said. “They affect your bottom line.”
Hughes conducts seminars and workshops on generational differences, helping colleagues identify strategies, skills, and tools to create more effective work relationships and increase business results, according to Claire Raines Associates’ website (www.generationsatwork.com).
“We hire good mixes, but we’re not good at making our mix work for us,” Hughes said. “You cannot manage what you do not see, and you cannot manage what you do not understand. So my job with groups is to create some visibility and some understanding so we can manage the differences.”
When considering the wants and needs of their intergenerational colleagues, Hughes encourages people to adhere to what she calls the “Titanium Rule”: Do unto others, keeping their preferences in mind.
“The Golden Rule doesn’t always work because it’s not about what you would like to have done to you—not everybody wants that,” she said.
For instructive purposes, Hughes uses 20-year time spans as the parameters for each generation. Generational start and end years vary by source and can overlap six to eight years.
Baby Boomers – Born 1940-60
Number: 78 million
Workplace traits: Team focused, consensus driven
Negative stereotype: Self-righteous, workaholics
According to Pew Research and Forbes, more than two-thirds of baby boomers are now retired. Less likely than their younger colleagues to have moved from job to job over the course of their careers, boomers often possess a wealth of organizational knowledge.
Dedicated, loyal workers, baby boomers are high achievers and define themselves by their professional accomplishments; indeed, their work is interwoven with their sense of self-worth. Their scale of “work/life balance” tends to tip more toward the “work” side, an attribute Gen Xers and millennials have a hard time understanding.
Younger workers looking to strengthen their rapport with their boomer colleagues should be personable and work toward building the relationship, Hughes advised. Emphasize the company’s mission and vision, and make sure conversations are two-way, with lots of give and take.
Differing approaches to collaboration can be a potential sticky spot between boomers and Gen Xers specifically.
“Boomers love consensus and getting the whole team to buy in. This typically involves a lot of meetings,” Hughes said. “Xers need to be patient and be part of the team and meetings, even though independent work and efficiency are their mantras, and the time to meet seems like such a waste. Boomers need to be sensitive to this and not schedule meetings just for meetings’ sake.”
Hughes said boomers operate well in a company hierarchy and can feel like millennials’ lack of experience means they don’t have much to offer—and boomers are resistant to millennials’ seeming need for constant feedback.
“Millennials need to be patient to learn from boomers and interject their thoughts, while trying not to appear ‘needy,’” Hughes said. “Boomers need to refrain from trying to make the younger generation ‘pay their dues,’ and create a collaborative and positive approach.”
Generation Xers – Born 1960-80
Number: 65 million
Workplace traits: Efficiency focused, independent
Negative stereotypes: Cynical, uncommitted
Poised to assume even more supervisory positions as their baby boomer colleagues continue to retire, Generation X is on the cusp of “coming into their power” in the workplace. Gen-X workers are noted for their entrepreneurial spirits and independent natures—these were the “latchkey kids” of the ’70s and ’80s, after all.
Gen Xers tend to have a hard time understanding baby boomers’ willingness to put in very long hours in-office and instead focus on accomplishing high-quality work effectively and efficiently.
“If you have a [workplace] culture that values face time more than you value productivity … you are going to find it a little bit challenging holding on to some of your great Gen-X talent because face time is not so important,” Hughes said. “Giving you the output that they can in a very efficient way is the way that most Gen Xers are wired.”
Now in approximately their late 30s to early 50s, much of Generation X is still in the throes of parenting. Hughes added that work/life balance is of huge importance to these workers—and it’s vital to both sexes.
“This is not female issue; this is an employee issue,” Hughes said. “You need to be able to figure out how people can craft their lives if they’re parents in a way that makes some sense to them so that you keep the best talent.”
Though much attention has been given to the boomer/millennial dynamic in the workplace, Gen Xers and millennials have their own set of conflicting work styles. Hughes encourages Gen Xers who are managing millennials to get to know their younger employees as individuals: find out their personal goals, encourage questions, and be willing to mentor and inspire.
Likewise, Hughes advises millennials reporting to Gen-X supervisors to work on paring down their questions to one or two per interaction—and to expect questions in return from the pragmatic, skeptical Gen Xer.
According to Hughes and Claire Raines Associates, boomers and millennials alike would do well to be direct and straightforward with Gen-X colleagues, tying their message to tangible results. And don’t “waste time” on hyperbole, buzzwords, and clichés with a Gen Xer, who will find those verbal styles off-putting and unnecessary.
Millennials – Born 1980-2000
Number: 84 million
Workplace traits: Positivity driven, enthusiastic
Negative stereotypes: Entitled, needy
As the relative newcomers to the global workplace, millennials are frequent targets for criticism from the older generations, who feel millennials are work averse, self-centered, and cosseted—the results of having been “helicopter parented” by their boomer and Gen-X parents.
Today’s young adults, however, have also established a reputation for being passionate, eager, generous, and socially conscious. They are tech savvy, creative, and motivated by the prospect of achievement.
Millennials tend to thrive on overall positivity in the workplace, and if it’s absent, they will leave and find it elsewhere. Hughes sees the link between high turnover rates among millennial employees and their older managers’ failure to maintain a generally positive atmosphere.
“It’s the one reason that we lose great millennials today. [The workplace is] not positive,” Hughes said. “And I don’t mean you have to throw a party in the hallway every day to celebrate that you came to work. I just mean that you can’t just be pragmatic and you can’t just be negative all the time—you will drive [millennials] nuts.”
As well as keeping things positive, Hughes encourages boomer and Gen-X supervisors to be available to coach their millennial subordinates while still setting healthy boundaries on their own time and energy.
“Create feedback opportunities, because that’s what your talented millennials are looking for,” Hughes said.
Rather than simply recognizing the varying work preferences and stewing in our unresolved irritation, Hughes aims to help employees appreciate their diversity and to recognize the “ethnocentrism” we all possess.
“That’s the feeling deep down inside of us that feels like: ‘My generation is pretty stellar—we get things done, my way’s the right way, my way’s the best way.’ We all have those feelings,” Hughes said. “We need to just be aware that we’ve got them … that will help us get over the hurdle of just being frustrated when people don’t do things my way.”
Hughes said the benefits of generational training begin with small changes in the way employees approach one another, but those small changes often lead to big improvements that profit the company as a whole.
“If I want to be efficient, if I want to be really valuable to the organization, and you and I’ve got to work on a project together—if I can sync my style up even slightly so that you and I resonate more quickly together … boy, I’ve benefited the organization right there.” BW