Secrets To Closing Generation Gaps At Work

Have you ever been in the middle of a project and felt like banging your head against a wall because your co-worker just didn’t get it? If y
April 01, 2011

Have you ever been in the middle of a project and felt like banging your head against a wall because your co-worker just didn’t get it? If you thought your partner was just too old and out of touch to understand the process or maybe too young and inexperienced to fully grasp a concept, you were dealing with the issue of generational diversity—a major topic in today’s office settings.


At this point in time, any given business has three generations working together. The oldest is the Baby Boomer generation, which, by most definitions, consists of anyone born from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s.


Next are the Generation Xers, born between the mid-1960s and the late-1970s/early-1980s. Rounding out the list is Generation Y, or the Millennials—anyone born from the early-1980s through the 1990s.


All three generations grew up with vastly different societal influences, norms and behaviors—producing three distinct groups of people. Put them together in a work place and you have what many small business owners would classify as a nightmare.


“Multi-generational workplaces are a huge issue right now,” says Daren Fristoe, president of The Fristoe Group, an HR consultancy based in Kansas City, Missouri. “All three groups have different agendas, different work ethics and different learning capabilities. This makes it exceedingly difficult for small business owners to make all of them go in the same direction at the same pace.”


Generally (and very stereotypically) speaking, Baby Boomers are known to have an unfailingly powerful work ethic. Generation Xers are independent and have the propensity to launch businesses of their own. Millennials, having grown up with computers, are incredibly tech savvy, and exhibit feelings of entitlement.


“Since Millennials were born in the glow of the Internet, computers and cell phones, their expectation is immediate,” Fristoe says. “They expect quick advancement in the workforce and can be impatient at times. They are also extremely fast learners. I often find that Generation Xers act as mediators between Baby Boomers and those in Generation Y because those two are so opposite.”



But fear not, business owners. There are several things you can do to bridge gaps in a multi-generational workforce.


First, focus on how you communicate to your employees and make sure you aren’t perpetuating generational stereotypes, says Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach and founder of CAS, Inc., a management training and consulting firm based in Somerville, New Jersey.


“What a business owner or leader talks about every day becomes the culture of a company,” Nasser notes. “If the business owner walks around saying, ‘You Millennials act so entitled, get to work,’ that will not support a culture of harmony. Instead, it is important to celebrate and respect each other’s differences.”


Business owners can do this by showing interest in things that are important to each generation, she says. “For example, Millennials are very interested in technology, so I would highlight that. Try to tap into each generation’s strengths, so everyone in the company can see each person’s value.”


According to Fristoe, communication is key. “Spend time listening to your employees,” he suggests. “This will help you understand what makes them tick. Try to get a general understanding of where someone is coming from.”


It's also important for colleagues to understand and respect each other’s differences, and to accomplish this, Nasser recommends a team building exercise she calls ‘Spotlight.’


The activity includes employees sectioning themselves off into multi-generational pairs. “One person plays the interviewer, the other the interviewee,” she says. “You conduct an interview in front of the entire group and start off by asking the other person to note one world event or happening that made an impression on them during their formative years—something that helped to shape who they are today."


“The interviewer then asks them questions about the event. This gets each side talking and listening to each other. People love to hear stories and this is a really fun activity.”


According to Nasser, the exercise helps generations understand one another in a way that is outside the work place topic realm. She says, when people start communicating with each other, they start to find similarities—a good first step to meaningful work relationships.


Finally, Fristoe suggests launching an internal mentoring program.


“A mentoring or developmental program that forces interaction can be a really good thing,” he says. “Try job sharing or instituting 360 degree reviews. These are cost effective ways to get people talking and positively open the lines of communication between generations.”