Overcoming Generational Barriers in Workplace Communication

Having shared goals but different expectations about how to achieve them is a common theme of workplace disagreements. How does an employer bridge the gap and keep the focus on quality outcomes and high productivity while simultaneously ensuring all employees feel represented within the workplace? It is critical to identify differences between alternative perceptions.

It is important to keep these differences in mind, to promote peace and productivity. Employers should focus on commonalities with these cohorts. Although the order of priorities may change between the generations, most employees value work-life balance, want to be included in decisions and leadership, expect training and development opportunities, strive for work that is challenging and rewarding, are financially motivated.

Work Values

  • Boomer: Stick to the agenda, enjoy and value teamwork and individual accountability.
  • Generation X: Strive for balance, freedom, and flexibility and value process over product.
  • Millennial: Value continuing education, respond well to mentoring, and prefer flattened hierarchy and social opportunities.
  • Generation Z: Expect work to be a central part of their lives, value guidance and reassurance, income-driven, risk-adverse and emphasize safety.

Some effective strategies for managing diverse workplace populations include:

  • interdisciplinary teams that include cross-generational mentoring and allow for all to be represented in decision making
  • individual recognition and promotion based on performance rather than longevity and past experience with incentives that are meaningful to the employees current life stage
  • multi-level feedback and supervision
  • multimodal communication
  • avoid generational biases and ageism
  • present changes in a way that does not seem to favor one group or displace another

Consider the following workplace decision-making process, finalizing project:

  • Boomer: We need to finalize the details of the project. I will schedule a meeting in the conference room sometime this week. Please let me know open times on your schedule.
  • Generation X: What a waste of time! We are just wrapping up the details – can we have a quick conference call instead and can’t we use a Doodle Poll to figure out when we can all meet?
  • Millennial: Why don’t we use Zoom or FaceTime?
  • Generation Z: Can’t this be solved asynchronously, I have a family obligation today. Could we respond in the next 24 hours with a cloud-based survey??

In this conversation, the employees share the same goal. Their communication preferences and the way they manage their time varies. As the conversation evolves, each individual contributes a set of ideas unique to their cohort. Personality conflicts may arise; some may get frustrated, thinking their way is the better method and not understanding why the other do not agree and some way may feel they are not heard and valued when their preferences are unmet. Over time, these disagreements can overcome exaggerated and could be source of further disagreement, contributing to the mood of the overall work environment.

Source: Rebecca Merlenbach, graduate student at Lindenwood University and Dr. Sarah Patterson-Mills, LPC, Program Chair for School Counseling at Lindenwood University.

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