How To Communicate In The New Multigenerational Office

At a recent professional development retreat led by
corporate trainer Dana Brownlee, a woman in her
mid-50s stood up and starting citing a laundry list
of communication conflicts on her mixed-age team.
Chiefly, she was angry that the younger members
rarely returned her phone calls by phone. Instead,
seeing the issue as non-pressing, they typically
would text or email back a response. The woman
worked herself into such a frenzy that she suddenly
spouted, “We need to stop emailing and pick up the
%^$# phone!”
As she continued to speak, Brownlee realized the
woman’s concern ran deeper than mere frustration.
Her voice cracked and her breathing faltered until
she couldn’t continue and sat down. It was more
than anger. She felt disrespected and
Welcome to life in the new workplace. As people
live and work longer than ever before, the modern
office now houses up to four wildly different
generations under one roof—and it can be a Petri
dish for problems. Veterans (born before 1946),
Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X
(1965-1979), and Generation Y or Millennials
(1980-2000) grew up in vastly different times, have
wide-ranging value sets and often employ
conflicting communication styles.
“I’m seeing a lot of generational conflict around
differences in communication style and approach to
working,” says Brownlee, president of corporate
training firm Professionalism Matters in Atlanta, Ga.
“It becomes a barrier that gets in the way of trust.”
The intricacies of workplace communication—what
we say, how we say it and what our choices say
about us—have become increasingly complex as
each group brings a different set of experiences and
expectations to the table.
Differences In Communication Style
“Years ago workplaces were much more formal,”
says Brownlee. “Now it’s much more casual and
colloquial.” However, old-school formality and new-
school ease can cause culture clashes. Whether it’s
a full suit vs. jeans or company letterhead vs. a
quick email, perceptions of what’s appropriate vary
widely. She works with one manager who regularly
feels he has to rein in his younger employees who
write emails to coworkers and clients as if they
were texting. While they prefer efficiency and are
more likely to perceive formal correspondence as
tedious, he values form and precision.
Furthermore, like the woman at Brownlee’s retreat,
differences in communication mode often create
tension. “Typically the older generations prefer
talking face-to-face or on the phone, and the
younger generations tend toward text-based
messages like email and instant message,” she
says. “It becomes very frustrating when you
communicate with someone in a mode that they
don’t like.”
To curb the potential dangers, Brownlee encourages
managers to set clear ground rules for what’s
expected in both internal and external
communications. At the same time, she advises
workers across all age groups to individualize their
approach by learning their coworkers’ preferences
and attempting to meet in the middle.
Changes In Approach To Working
Brownlee, a Gen Xer herself, often hears from her
Veteran and Boomer clients that in their day they
felt proud and lucky to have a job. It was a means
of providing for their families, and they wanted to
give their lives to the company, knowing the
company would take care of them. Therefore, they
can’t understand why younger generations often
don’t share the same work ethic of doing whatever
needs to be done and staying as long as it takes.
However, the economic environment has
completely transformed the values and priorities of
younger workers. “Pensions are a foreign concept
today,” says Brownlee. “Now we’re taught that you
don’t want to stay at one company too long, as
you’re worth more on the open market.” While
older generations tend to respect hierarchy more
and focus on moving up the ladder where they are,
she says younger workers are more entrepreneurial
and tend to jump between jobs. They also want to
align their lifestyles and sense of purpose with their
jobs, so tend to seek flexibility and meaning from
their work. It’s not that they don’t work hard; it’s
that they think of work differently.
Additionally, younger people often seek more
guidance, feedback and acknowledgement on the
job, Brownlee says, which can create a perception
gap. Older workers may think the younger group is
needy or high maintenance, and younger workers
may feel in the dark or unappreciated. “The
solution is on both ends,” she says. “Leaders need
to realize how important that acknowledgment is,
but the younger generations need to realize they’re
not going to get an IV drip of praise.”
Bridging The Gap Between Generations
The solution won’t come from any one person or
generation. “Each party thinks it’s the other
person’s problem,” says Brownlee. “The
responsibility is really mutual.” Being aware of the
differences is a good start. More than that, she
encourages people to talk about them, to demystify
what’s unknown or misunderstood.
It starts with a baseline of respect. “Go out of your
way to learn from each other
,” she advises. Older
workers can lend their vast industry knowledge and
experience. Younger workers can shed light on
demographic, pop culture and technology trends. “It
starts with a coffee or a walk.”



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