Intergenerational Communication

Communicating Across Workplace Generation Gaps

Where do you hear the sounds of fountain pens scratching on paper while smartphones buzz with incoming text messages?

In the typical workplace.

There are four generations at work today:

•Traditionalists (born before 1946) value loyalty and discipline and respect hierarchy and authority

•Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), being goal-driven, competitive and work-centric, now occupy positions of power in the corporate world

•Generation X (born 1965-1980) is 55 million strong in North America and is a skeptical, pragmatic and self-reliant cohort that values independence, respects diversity and desires work-life balance

•Generation Y (born 1981-1999) numbers 80 million in North America and is filled with digitally-fluent optimists who embrace social responsibility, celebrate individuality and difference, rework the rules and thrive on collaboration and kinship

According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, this can be a combustible generational mix. Almost eight in 10 people polled perceived a major divide between the point of view of younger people and older people today. The Pew Center’s study echoes Randstad USA’s 2008 World of Work survey finding that the four generations rarely interact with one another.

Given this pronounced generational split, facilitating productive workplace communication can be a big challenge for managers and team leaders. On one end of the communication spectrum, Traditionalists generally prefer to engage face-to-face and through formal typed or hand-written letters. On the other, Gen Y employees opt to communicate via text, instant messages and email. The question, then, is how to bridge workplace communication gaps that can chill collaboration, diminish productivity and impair the business bottom line.

Experts agree that an important first step is to recognize that, unlike their older coworkers, denizens of Gen Y shun authoritarian communication. Raised on a steady diet of positive feedback and recognition, they also need regular input from their bosses. Consequently, to better connect with Gen Y workers, managers and leaders should consider:

• Adopting a communication style that is less curt, callous and confrontational and more respectful, conciliatory and indirect

• Making requests that identify tangible business goals instead of issuing blanket orders

• Supplementing annual performance reviews with more frequent progress reports and informal updates

Another key step is to encourage and empower all employees to use a full range of communication tools. Through workplace learning opportunities, even workers with technophobia can engage with others through e-mail, blogging, text messaging, instant messaging and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, simulated interactions and role-playing can help workers who find it hard to converse face-to-face or in a written communication of more than 140 characters.

Productive cross-generational communication also flows when managers and team leaders take steps to bring the generations onto common ground. If blended into functional work teams, for example, older and younger workers can share knowledge and collaborate on devising business strategies, developing new products and handling service issues. This kind of close collaboration cultivates understanding, trust and respect.

As over 90% of Fortune 500 companies have discovered, common bonds also forge through workplace affinity groups. Also known as networking or resource groups, affinity groups bring employees together around common denominators like race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. They also form around shared interests in books, sports, travel and music. Regardless of their focus, affinity groups hold great potential for fostering the kind of bonds that compel meaningful communication and connection between employees of all ages.

There is little doubt that major communication obstacles arise when four very different generations occupy one workplace. Managers and team leaders can overcome these obstacles by taking practical steps to create and sustain meaningful connections across the generational divides. When they empower employees to embrace new communication tools and explore shared interests, companies forge a strong communication foundation that will support them well into the future.