Tips for Making Multigenerational Communications Work

Making multigenerational communications workToday’s workplace is a tableau of generations that includes employees representing a wide range of age groups. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are three generations that show the highest employment – Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials1. Even more striking is the fact that each generation is near evenly represented in the workplace.

When you consider the wide age gap between these generations – from 25 to 54 – you can imagine the communication issues that may arise. That’s because everyone communicates differently. Generational differences affect the way we interact, so that even a simple exchange can quickly go downhill.

Consider an email sent from one employee to another asking for a crucial piece of information needed to move forward on a project. The response? “K.” Had this been you, you might feel slighted and compelled to march over to the person’s office to express your frustration. In doing so, you might realize that the person isn’t in his or her office, but rather driving in the car and couldn’t respond fully, yet still wanted to be sure you received a response – even if it was short and misunderstood. But left with no additional information, it’s easy to see how this simple exchange might turn into a huge communication disaster.

While it can be challenging to address all the nuances of effective communication, there are some steps you can take to improve communication in your multigenerational workplace.

Understand the Culture

Every organization has a personality that defines its culture. If you work for a financial services firm, the environment may be more formal compared to a start-up technology company. There are many indicators that can uncover our office culture – from the dress code to the number of hours you work each week and how those hours are arranged (i.e. flextime or telecommuting). But one important factor is how employees interact.

To understand your workplace culture, observe the environment and people around you. Notice the preferred method of communication – is it in-person, telephone, email or IM? Does everyone communicate in the same way? If not, what do you notice about how different people interact? Also, look to your manager and other leaders in your organization for communication cues that might help you.

Recognize and Appreciate Differences

Communication approaches vary widely, even when everyone involved wants the same outcome. That’s why it’s important to first recognize the differences within your organization, and then appreciate them for what they are. When considering age differences, start by understanding the different generations you may encounter at work2:

  • Traditionalists (1925-1945) are often recognized as practical, loyal rule-followers.
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1960) are typically seen as optimistic, team-oriented workaholics.
  • Generation X (1961-1980) are considered skeptical, self-reliant and have a strong desire to balance work and personal life.
  • Millennials (1981-present) are thought to be hopeful, driven by technology and seek meaningful work.

Keep in mind that these generational stereotypes are only starting points that represent general perspectives on each age group as a whole. Everyone is unique, so while this information may inform how you communicate between generations, it’s important that you personalize your communication approach, which brings us to the next tip.

Personalize Your Communication Approach

Given the differences between age groups, take time to tailor your communication approach accordingly. Don’t assume that everyone communicates the same way you do. Also don’t make assumptions about another person’s communication preferences because of his or her age. Instead, notice communication preferences in the person you’re trying to reach.

For example, you may prefer email and text communication, but your co-worker may feel more comfortable with a phone call or a quick in-person meeting. Be willing to move outside of your communication comfort zone so that your message is received and heard.

Focus on the Relationship and the Outcomes

When a communication attempt fails, don’t take it personally. Instead, focus on the relationship and the outcomes. That means putting the working relationship above your personal feelings, and focusing on the outcomes you want to achieve.

For example, if you’re collaborating on a key project and are struggling to communicate with a partner in that project, stop to consider your motivation and his or hers. What is it that you want to achieve? Consider that in relation to the priorities of the other person. While you may both share a goal to successfully complete the project, your motivation may be different. Knowing how that motivation differs can go a long way in improving communication.

Be Open to Leaning (and Teaching)

Effective communication takes an open mind. You must be willing to see a situation from another person’s point of view, which can be difficult if you don’t share experiences. This is especially true between generations where a Baby Boomer’s upbringing and life experiences may vary drastically from a Millennial. Be willing to learn from others, but also be willing to teach.

For instance, you may be working in a fast-paced, technology-driven organization that uses IM and online video chats to communicate. Few people meet in person, but you notice a new employee struggling to adapt to the culture. He clearly longs for the days when memos were passed from desk to desk. Rather than grow in your frustration over his lack of technical savvy, offer to help him learn. The gesture alone will support a strong working relationship, but may also dramatically improve communication for you and others.

Not Sure? Ask.

When you’re involved in a communication breakdown, don’t assume the worst in others. Instead, check in with them to better understand their perspective. You may be surprised at how quickly communication issues can be resolved if you simply communicate!

1Source: Employment status of the civilian non-institutional population by age, sex, and race (retrieved 5/15/15)
2Source: Generation stereotypes (retrieved 5/15/15)

Image credit: Gratisography