Because there are five generations working, it is likely you’ll encounter miscommunication and misunderstanding in many work environments. How do you bridge the gap of differences, identify the similarities, and begin to thrive on a team together? As hard as it may be, your role as a leader is to wade through the distractions, grow your verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and focus on validating others and their experiences. This validation builds trust, and as Stephen R. Covey once said, “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships together.”
HIDDEN IMPACT OF THE MEDIA
According to the 2020 Nielson Total Audience report, the average American watches 12 hours and 21 minutes (excludes time at work) of television per day. Whether we consciously know it or not, a narrative that focuses on generational differences may be deliberately spread… and we wouldn’t even know it was occurring. Here are three psychological principles that are likely being used to influence our subconscious mind and convince us to follow a specific narrative.
- Mere Exposure Effect – Psychologist Robert Zajonc’s research showed that watching, hearing, or reading the same message repeatedly causes us to unconsciously believe the message even if we consciously disagree with it. If the information was presented to you subliminally, and you don’t consciously remember absorbing the information, you still like and believe it. The things you’re “learning” may be an outright lie, yet you still believe them to be true.
- Recency Effect – This is a cognitive bias in which items, ideas, or arguments that came last in a series are remembered more clearly than those coming before them. The more recently heard, the clearer something may exist in your memory. 24-hour news cycles keep a narrative, and belief pattern, top of mind.
- Law of Authority – If you’ve not read Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, I encourage you to consider it. People follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts because the experts can offer a perceived shortcut to good decisions that would otherwise take a long time for them to devise themselves. On TV programs, people with sought-after certificates, degrees, and experiences are chosen to share expertise in a way that supports the narrative of the producer.
DIFFERENCES WITHIN AND ACROSS GENERATIONS
Any conversation on finding commonality across generations wouldn’t be complete unless we honored the ways people within the same generation are different. People born into a generation can have very different behavioral or communication profiles, core values, motivators, be from unique geographies and local cultures, religions and belief systems, socio-economic status, languages, gender, age, ethnicity, and much more. It is also possible there are distinct differences across generations. Each of the items in the previous paragraph apply here. As decades have passed, the size of our economy has grown enormously. We’re more technologically advanced than we were, especially since the mid-1990s when the world wide web was made available to the public. We can communicate globally in ways we never could before. The internet offers us free access to the world’s information.
Differences within and across generations are real, and instead of perceiving them as detrimental, perhaps we should honor them as signs of a unique journey, ways to learn from one another, or methods to learn more about what humanity is truly capable of.
FIVE WAYS WE’RE THE SAME
Now, I’ll offer five pieces of research that show how we’re more similar than we’re led to believe.
(1) Credibility. Global communication firm Edelman publishes their Trust Barometer annually. In 2019, Edelman found people rate “a person like yourself” as being more credible than boards of directors, CEOs, government officials, and journalists. Their survey covered 27 international markets and included 33,000 respondents from across all generations. Humans, regardless of generation, are the same in that as time passes, we’re trusting institutions (the media, CEOs, boards, governments) less… and “a person like yourself” more. If you’d like to know more about a person from a different generation, ask them –
- Why do you enjoy your area of expertise?
- When and how did you know it’d become your career?
- Walk me through your journey to today.
- What are your most important life lessons learned?
(2) Ten Principles. In 2007, Jennifer J. Deal and the Center for Creative Leadership published Retiring the Generation Gap. Over seven years, she studied more than 3,000 leaders to find ways in which people from all generations are similar. Although we have unique characteristics, humans have similar underlying motivations, needs, and values. We want roughly the same things, but how we secure any one of Deal’s 10 principles may be different. Applying these principles when communicating with diverse groups can help us collaborate with, work for, manage, and develop teams. Deal said, “The so-called generation gap is, in large part, the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding, fueled by common insecurities and the desire for clout.” If you’d like to know more about a person from a different generation, ask them –
- What is your favorite thing to learn about?
- What recent life changes have you experienced?
- What do you value in a leader and why is that important to you?
(3) Human Needs. Think for a moment about the events, societal circumstances, and technological growth that was happening while each generation was being raised. As time passed, society advanced and younger generations were born into a society where the core needs labeled in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs were taken care of. The different generations working today will subconsciously default to making choices based upon what was happening around them when they were children, in their teenage years, and in early adulthood. The core needs of all humans happen to be the same, but people from each generation may start at a different level of the hierarchy. As society advanced, and previous needs were met, each generation unknowingly climbed to value the next need. Ask someone from a different generation –
- Tell me about the community you were raised in.
- From your teenage years, what world events do you remember most vividly?
- What values are you trying to pass to your children?
(4) Life Stages. We see many media sources referring to Generation Y as lazy, entitled, and selfish. What we may be forgetting is that Traditionalists said the same thing about Baby Boomers. And, Baby Boomers said it about Generation X. And, unless we choose to change something, Generations X and Y will say the same about Generation Z. What this narrative has brought to light is that each generation matriculates between Carl Jung’s Four Life Stages (athlete, warrior, statement, spirit) in their own time. The environment in which someone lives is a major influence on when they move to the next life stage. When the younger generation is in Jung’s Athlete phase, their focus is not on professional accomplishment (as we’d find in the Warrior stage). It is on self-discovery. If you’d like to know more about someone close to you, ask them –
- What are your life’s most important goals?
- Have you defined your life’s legacy? What is it?
- What challenges did you overcome? How do you help others do the same?
(5) Brainwaves. Dr. Bruce Lipton, who graduated in 1971 with a Ph.D. in cell biology, is a pioneer at understanding the five brainwave states (gamma, beta, alpha, theta, delta). He trained or taught at the University of Texas, University of Wisconsin, Penn State, John F. Kennedy University, and more. He’s published 10+ books. In recent years, he’s studied electroencephalogram (EEG) readings that show that from birth to age 6, the human brain is in the theta state. After age 6, and for the rest of our lives, our brains move into beta. In beta, we unknowingly and unconsciously repeat behaviors taught to us while we were in theta. Our subconscious mind processes 400 billion bits of information per second, yet our conscious mind only processes 2,000 bits per second. To learn more about what shaped someone near you, ask them –
- What did your parents do that you find yourself doing?
- How have you broken your generational curses?
- What do you do to find stillness, to find time for reflection?
TAILOR YOUR COMMUNICATION
So, if we search for commonality by understanding the ways we’re more similar than dissimilar, we’ll have a much better chance at open communication, trust, and lasting relationships. Following are ideas for communicating with the different generations.
Communicating to a Traditionalist (born 1922-1945)
Because traditionalists respect authority, put duty before fun, and strictly adhere to rules, they tend to lead with a command-and-control style. They’re directive and prefer to be communicated to formally and through the written word (think…memos). They take satisfaction in doing a job well, so make sure that you share with them how much you respect their experience. When it comes to providing feedback, no news is good news, so only approach them with something that is paramount to their performance.
Communicating to a Baby Boomer (1946-1964)
Baby boomers are known to be workaholics, desire high quality in their products and services, and aren’t afraid to question authority. They want to be collegial leaders, so working with them, as a team member is relevant and valuable. Communicate in person, but try to avoid meetings, one-to-one will be the best method. Relaying the message that their contribution is needed, reward them with money, and give them a meaningful title. Boomers work to live, so talk with them about their work more than you do about their home lives.
Communicating to Generation X (1965-1980)
Individuals born between 1965 and 1980 want structure and direction and are often skeptical of the status quo. Because X’ers view everyone as coming from the same level, feel free to challenge them, and communicate directly. Having a conversation immediately after an event is more relevant than waiting too long. They like hearing feedback, so give it freely, but also remember that autonomy is important to them, so inspect what you expect. To fire up small talk, feel free to talk about both personal and professional lives.
Communicating to Generation Y (1981-1996)
The millennials are always wondering about what is next. They’re entrepreneurial, goals oriented, and feel comfortable with multitasking, so feel free to create participative conversations. We all know that Y’ers like to communicate electronically, so send SMS messages, e-mails, and social media wall posts. They want their work to be meaningful, so provide feedback continually and put them on teams with other bright and creative people.
Communicating to Generation Z (1996 – present)
These people were raised in a world where they can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime. They’re the first generation to have access to and know more than their parents. They love sharing ideas online and learning via networked teams. They’re more tolerant of diversity, desire leaders who are creative and inspiring. They want more flexible work hours and are helping to create careers that don’t exist today. Offer them ways to automate their repetitive tasks. Use experiential learning elements and myriad means to communicate with them. Respond to them quickly (less than 12 hours) and give them access to mentors and just in time learning.
Each of us has highly unique journeys. The uniqueness should be honored as we have much to learn from one another. I believe bigger societal change is coming and those who learn new habits, unlearn old emotional responses, and relearn ways of being in line with where society is going will have most fulfilling experiences and communication. Finding commonality is an intentional distribution of time into activities that align you with things that matter to you, with genuine people who want to help you, and working on projects that teach you new things. Deepening these relationships comes down to how often, and consistently, you learn new things you have in common with one another.
WEBINAR AND RESOURCES
You can watch my video about Finding Generational Similarities To Improve Communication on YouTube. I expand upon the outline above and am hopeful it helps you to see how generations are more similar than they are dissimilar. If you’d like to build trust and accountability through better communication, lessen organizational conflict and waste, and improve employee engagement and productivity, this will help you.