How To Bridge the Generational Gap in the Workplace

From Justin Hale, VitalSmarts Master Trainer

We’ve never had so many different generations in the workplace at once. In many of our companies, we have employees from four generations:

  1. Silent Generation: 1925-1945
  2. Baby Boomers: 1946-1964
  3. Gen X: 1965-1979
  4. Gen Y/Millennials: 1980-2000

Some people say we have a “generational gap”.

Even at VitalSmarts, we’ve recently conducted research about “The Generational Divide”.

Earlier this year, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield found that over a third of the workforce wastes more than five hours a week because of unaddressed issues and miscommunication between people in two different generations.

This is a big problem we’re trying to solve.

I wanted to know what the experts were saying so I could step into this problem and find an effective solution.

The funny thing was, most of what I read was just about Millennials — my generation.

How do we manage them? How do we understand them? How do we get them off their phones?

Here’s a quick summary of my generation according to the literature.

3 Traits of Millennials (According To The “Experts”)

As I researched it, there were three terms that kept coming up.

1. Entitled

First, we’re entitled. Some people even call us the trophy generation. That may not sound like a bad thing since trophies are usually indicative of success and accomplishment. It turns out we were a little different.

When I was nine-years-old, I played soccer in a community league. At the end of the season, an assistant coach presented me with a beautiful gold trophy that had “MVP — Most Valuable Player” inscribed on the bottom. I was so proud.

But, as I looked around, I saw every other kid on my team being presented with identical MVP trophies! For my generation, trophies aren’t as much about excellence as they are about showing up.

Mark Taylor, who’s been studying generations in the learning environment says that Millennials “went into high school expecting high grades with very little effort, just for showing up.”

Now that we’re in the workplace, he says, “Millennials ask not what they can do for their organisations, but what their organisations can do for them.”

It turns out 40 percent of Millennials think we should get promoted every two years independent of performance.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

2. Self-Involved

Secondly, we’re very self-interested and self-involved.

We take selfies and post them on our favorite social media channels. Then we wait for people to like them or comment because we’re looking for affirmation or a self-esteem boost.

In a TIME Magazine article called “The ME ME ME Generation”, they talked about how common narcissistic personality disorder had become in Millennials. They said it was three times more prominent in this generation than in previous generations when they were our age.

We think a lot of ourselves, but unfortunately, that may not be very accurate.

Another research study, The American Freshmen Survey, asked freshmen to rate themselves compared to their peers. They’ve held this study every year since 1966, but recently, they’ve found an “unprecedented level of self-infatuation.”

They ended the study by saying, “We find a large disconnect between what Millennials think they can do, and what they can actually do.”

So, apparently, we think we’re really great but lack the skills to accomplish big tasks.

3. Lazy

Lastly, it turns out we’re really really lazy.

We want to come into the workforce and on the first day and ask, “Can we come in a little late? Can we take a longer lunch break? Can I leave early at the end of the day to go play with my friends?”

I thought about this for my own life and began to ask myself, “Am I lazy?”

Maybe it’s about the technology. Maybe the technology’s made us a little lazy.

Several weeks ago I was helping my parents move across the country. My mom was going through a bunch of old boxes and pulled out a card box full of VHS tapes. When she asked me if I wanted them, I said, “No thanks.”

Why not? I didn’t want to spend my time rewinding each tape!

We just might be a little lazy.

4. Failure to Launch

Finally, we struggle to get moving.

More Millennials between the ages of 18 and 29 live with parents than live with spouses. We have a failure to launch.

Labels and Behaviour

You may be wondering why I’m trashing my generation. What’s the point?

In reality, I could probably fill up two entire seminars on the stereotypes and generalisations about Generation X’ers and Baby Boomers.

There are plenty of examples of that, but what I want to consider a little bit is this: Are the categorisations and stereotypes really that valuable?

In Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability, we talk a lot about labeling and the villain story. When we put people in those labels, it triggers a lot of negative behaviour on our end.

Not only do are some of these categorisations are unhelpful, but sometimes they’re just plain wrong.

Nothing New

My research also led me to an article about “The Generation Gap” from LIFE Magazine… only this article was written in 1966 about the Baby Boomers.

I found an article about “The Me Generation” from New York Magazine… also written in 1976 about Baby Boomers.

Then I found an article talking about the younger generation’s incessant need to videotape themselves. That must be about Millennials, right? No, it was written in Newsweek Magazine in 1985 about Generation X’ers.

The point is, a lot of this is just part of being a younger person. For the last 75 years, it’s been common in society for the older people to say the younger people are selfish, self-involved, and entitled.

This is nothing new at all, but that doesn’t make it any less of an issue.

There will always be a new, young generation. There will always be challenges associated with bridging the generational gap. But, before we label and villainise others for being different, let’s seek to understand them. After all, someone thought the same thing about your generation once, too.

The Greatest Generation of Communicators

I want to challenge one specific stereotype — one that’s very common, yet very important to how we move forward with the current generational divide.

I honestly believe that my generation, the Millennials, might be the greatest generation of communicators we’ve ever had in the workforce.

This may sound absolutely ridiculous to you. There’s a good chance that when you think of Millennials, the words disconnected and distracted come to mind. But, I want to flip that around a little bit. Here’s the bigger question:

Is distraction a Millennial problem? Or, is it a human problem?

To dive a little deeper, is the idea that we’re becoming more distracted an issue of changing generations? Or, is it an issue of changing technology?

To be perfectly clear, could my generation be less distracted? ABSOLUTELY! But, couldn’t we all?

I know this is a bold statement.

I could spend hours talking about why I think Millennials are really effective communicators. I could talk about the fact that we communicate quicker. We’re able to assemble information online, quickly come up with decisions, and move it towards the decision makers in our organisations.

We even hate meetings so much we’d rather just quickly have the conversation over text messages so we can move forward with real work.

Who Do They Think They Are?

I could talk about a variety of these things, but there’s one point I really want to focus on.

As I read through the research, one of the biggest complaints I read about from Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers is the idea that many Millennials — when first coming into the workforce — made requests about our hours and benefits. We ask about promotion opportunities too soon. We even give ideas for the strategy of the company before we’ve accomplished a single thing.

And this bugs the heck out of the Baby Boomer and Gen X bosses. Why?

Because that’s not the norm. Up to this point, the norm is that no one should speak up like that until they’re in some sort of positional power in the organisation.

The norm is to take your lumps, do your job as best as you can, and when you’ve accomplished something and moved into the right role, then you can start asking for those things. Only then can you make requests and speak up.

That’s the norm, but my generation is saying, “No! I want to speak up now,” and that rubs people the wrong way.

Mark Taylor once said, “Millennials are informal and often not constrained by the old-fashioned and traditional social expectations that might limit their directness in communication.”

With that in mind, you have to consider that just because we’re confident in speaking up doesn’t mean we’re really good at it.

Where HR Specialists and Trainers Come In

As trainers and HR specialists, our job is to do two things:

  1. Improve someone’s competence by teaching the skills and strategies to speak up or influence
  2. Improve someone’s confidence in their ability to use those skills.

Usually, when you improve someone’s competence, their confidence improves as well… but not always.

Two days of training is a very short time to shift someone’s belief that they should speak up if they’re in a position of formal authority.

In the classroom, we have an odd dichotomy: on one hand, we’re saying, “You can do it! You should speak up! Be confident to speak up.” But now we have a generation of learners coming into the classroom saying, “I’m confident to speak up now.”

The problem is, my generation stinks at it. We need help, and that’s where you come in.

3 Tips to Bridge The Generation Gap

Here are three tips to better approach this problem and help Millennials become what they’re really capable of:

1. Couple Confidence with Competence

Consider how you can add informal mentoring to help us acquire those skills.

The formal mentoring we typically think of generally only benefits one side. A senior person gets together with the junior person, teaches them all they know, and the junior person does all of the benefiting.

But there’s an interesting movement gaining in popularity called “reverse mentoring”.

It’s this idea that you put a senior person with a junior person and the senior helps the junior with how to speak up, when to speak up, and what it means to be a professional (being on time, taking initiative, etc.). Then, the junior helps the senior with things like technology, new innovations, PR, social media, and digital marketing.

There’s a wide range of skills a junior person has that could be of great benefit to the senior person, so consider how you can couple our confidence with competence and use opportunities for reverse mentoring as a way to do that.

2. Understand Our Motivations

One of my favourite skills taught in Crucial Accountability Training® is Make It Motivating where the key to motivation is making a connection between the behaviour you want from someone and something they already value.

But, that makes the assumption you already know what they value. One of the things you need to consider is this: are you making the mistake that what you value is the same as what they value?

If you’re wondering, “how do I know what they value?” I have a super secret tip for you: ASK!

I have a boss that does this really really well. At least twice each year, we sit down for lunch and she simply asks me, “What are you interested in? What excites you? What motivates you? What do you want to do?”

This does two things.

  1. It helps her manage me effectively.
  2. I’d do anything to help her be successful because I know she cares about me and my motivations.

When you ask, you may be really surprised at what you find out.

One thing you might be surprised to learn is that there’s an unprecedented connection to mission. The data shows that 50% of us will take less money to do work for a company we think is having a greater impact on the world.

They’re finding that our generation cares more about mission than margins — more than any other generation that came before us.

3. Expect & Empower

Daniel Pink makes a great point about this. He says that the key to employee engagement is two-fold:

  1. High Expectations
  2. High Autonomy

When the other generations look at mine, they worry about the future. They lower their expectations because they don’t believe we can get a lot done.

I was recently talking to a good friend of mine at Goodlife Fitness in Canada. They have an employee population of 80% Millennials. Yet Goodlife Fitness, year-in and year-out, is one of the top 10 most respected corporate cultures in all of Canada.

I asked her what they did that was so special, and she replied, “When we hire someone, we make it very very very clear what we expect of them — and our expectations are really high. Then, we give them autonomy. We work hard, and we play hard.”

To my Gen X and Baby Boomer friends, I’d ask you not to lower your expectations but raise them. Clarify them, but raise them. Then we just might have a chance of creating the greatest generation of communicators the workforce has ever seen.

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