Recently, I have met with several employer groups and one question always seems to come up. “What do we do about managing so many generations in the workplace?”
This question confounds me a bit, mostly because multi-generational workplaces are nothing new. A number of years ago, when I was 26 years old, my boss was 62 years old. I had co-workers whose ages spanned generations, and this remained the norm throughout my career. Today, I work with clients who are decades younger than I am and with colleagues who are working beyond typical retirement age.
Admittedly, things don’t always go smoothly among the generations. My 62 year-old boss tried to send me home to change my clothes when I wore a red suit to work — the red color was apparently not “conservative enough”. On a more embarrassing front, there have been numerous times when I have felt clueless about technology that my younger colleagues have take to without hesitation. I know this isn’t a new dynamic; I clearly remember helping my older co-workers learn how to use a fax machine “back in the day”!
No, things are not much different today. Rather, I think today’s social climate shines a brighter light on “differences”. We seem to need ways to categorize or label things so we can make sense of them quickly. We need ways to sort and decide about the flurry of information and stimuli that bombards us every day. Generational labels are no different, and these labels create obstacles to understanding and appreciation.
I do a lot of work with multi-generational teams, as well as teams that are more homogenous in regard to generational identity. In my experience, I have yet to see any dramatic difference between how these teams operate. They face the very same challenges; communications, conflict, role clarity, accountability. It’s just a little too neat to attribute “generational differences” to the issues that teams have.
What if we shed the entire notion of labeling the generations and instead start a dialogue to draw on differences to drive innovation and collaboration? Where do we start?
One of my favorite old movies is “The King and I”. There is a memorable scene where Anna sings “Getting to Know You” with the numerous children who are suddenly in her care. By today’s standards, it is a pretty cheesy song, but the theme of getting to know someone offers a good first step in creating effective relationships.
We could roll back a lot of the angst about generational differences if we borrowed Anna’s example of getting to know one another by creating a dialogue. It is well-known that conversation helps us find common ground and foster appreciation. Why don’t we try this in the workplace?
Let’s keep it simple. Take a small step to creating a conversation among your team members.
When we connect with people on familiar turf, we begin to sow the seeds of understanding and appreciation. Conversation breaks down the walls of bias, intolerance and ignorance. Let’s not make this “generational thing” more complicated than it really is. Avoid the hype of labels and categories. Generational differences have and always will be part of the workplace. Invest some time and start the conversation.