If you work with people who are much older than you, or much younger, you may have experienced communication problems from time to time. I know I have found myself in this situation before. I like to collaborate and share ideas and sometimes I like coming up with new, more efficient ways of doing things if I feel an improvement is needed. Needless to say, I’ve worked with some people who did not appreciate this approach. New ideas can be perceived as a threat to a person who has done something the same way for a long time and who isn’t particularly amenable to new ways of doing things. It may make them feel as if they are becoming irrelevant because change is happening at a pace they aren’t comfortable with. They may feel that their position is in jeopardy, particularly if the new ideas are coming from a younger co-worker. While the intent may not be to alienate older, seasoned employees, these behaviors can be perceived as alienating if there has been a breakdown in communication and a lack of good leadership.
Last week we talked about managing multiple generations, specifically bridging generational skill gaps. This week, I want to talk about communication between generations. I’ve mainly focused on millennials thus far but, today, I’d like to consider Generation X’s role in the workforce as “forgotten middle child,” how this colors their perceptions of generational differences, and discuss ways we can all become better communicators and better collaborators despite these differences.
My fellow Gen Xers, we are outnumbered. Considerably. We are also worse off than our parents. We have been the victims of a tanked economy, the housing bubble, student loan debt, and the cost of sending our children to college (read this article and then cry really hard). We are just sad. Soon we will probably be working for millennials (if we aren’t already). We are already working with them. As Sharalyn Hartwell explains in the Market Watch article:
“It is ironic Generation X have been upstaged by the younger generation and left on the shelf…They were the original latchkey kids, and already feel like they were forgotten and neglected by their own parents.”
As a Gen Xer, you may have a much longer trek ahead of you to reach retirement, compared to boomers. You may also have a longer climb up the corporate ladder…and millennials are already nipping at your heels.
Why can’t we all just get along?
Boomers and millenials make up a huge chunk of the workforce. Generation X just doesn’t have the numbers on its side. In addition, the relationship between Xers and millennials can be rocky at times. Here’s why, according to a study by Robert Half International:
- Millennials feel differently about paying their dues. In fact, half of those surveyed felt that professionals should have to spend only 1-2 years paying their dues in entry level positions.
- Millennials are known for a musical chairs-like approach to their careers—they switch jobs. A LOT.
For Gen Xers, a generation that has often been obsessed with authenticity and dues-paying, the millennial approach to dues-paying can be frustrating because of the “fake it til you make it” potential there, which can result in a person with limited experience being moved into a position they may not be qualified for. It can also seem tiresome to baby boomers who have been doing their thing for a long time and pride themselves on experience. However, this same study found that many millennials actually expect to pay their dues in other ways—with advanced degrees, mainly.
As for the millennial tendency to job hop, Xers and baby boomers change jobs and careers less frequently than millennials and may consider job hopping a sign of capriciousness and lack of dedication. While job hopping can sometimes put recruiters off, there may be an upshot, according to a Forbes article: “changing jobs and getting a promotion in the process allows Gen Y employees to avoid the ‘dues paying’ that can trap workers in a painfully slow ascent up the corporate ladder.”
#Winning (at succession planning)
I recently read the book The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley and was struck by this passage:
The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.
Of course, Eiseley was writing about the process of evolution but it’s an apt lens through which we can view succession planning and managing generations. If you are a good leader, you want your organization to evolve. In order for this to happen, a leader must always take an active role in the push forward. The old ways are constantly warring with the new ways. There is a constant push to innovate, but there may be just as much push-back and resistance to a culture of change. In your organization, what that may look like is the older generation butting heads with the younger generation.
Technology isn’t the only breaking point; sometimes our views on what engagement means, what equality means, and how we make those things happen are approached in different ways. As boomers retire, their years of knowledge and experience go with them. Millennials may try to supplant them before they have “paid their dues” and Gen Xers may find it difficult to work with a generation they perceive as entitled. How do we deal with these issues?
The first step in the process is to stop expecting millennials to be like us. This may be a daunting task for Gen Xers who find the millennial approach to moving up frustrating or disrespectful. You may approach innovation in a different way, or express yourself differently, or place less importance on collaborative efforts, but don’t expect your co-workers, be they younger or older, to take the same approach. We have enough in common that we can work from the commonalities and learn from our differences. We have different expectations, different experiences, and, though we all need those basic motivators that Daniel Pink mentions—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—we may reach these motivational goals in different ways.
It is of the utmost importance to bridge gaps in communication and in understanding through mentoring, training, and collaboration between the generations. The success of your organization depends on it. Convey your mission regularly and consistently and always consider the unique things that each generation can bring to the table: the experience of the boomer, the flexibility and stick–to–itiveness of the Gen Xer, and the adaptability and cultural awareness of the millennial.
“Do you think I could be a writer?”
“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. … Do you like sentences?”
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of the paint.”
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Intrinsic motivation – the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing – is essential for high levels of creativity.
Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us
My wife and I watched Wolf Hall on PBS last Sunday, and we’re hooked. And apparently, so are a bunch of other folks. I’ve already read about five articles about the series. This one, Hilary Mantel on ‘Wolf Hall,’ Kate Middleton, and Plans For New Novels by Tim Teeman on The Daily Beast, was especially good, profiling and interviewing the author of Wolf Hall.
But, for this blog, here’s what jumped out at me:
Did Mantel think the books would be so big?
She laughs. “I thought it would be a sentence, then a paragraph, that’s the way it goes. If you are to succeed as a writer, you can’t be thinking about fame and honors—you should only be thinking about the rhythm of a sentence. You do your best for the reader by pinning the moment to the page. The imagination works in these little increments. Much later you begin to add it all up. I’m in the room, writing, with Cromwell and his company, not my publisher and a prize jury.”
“You can’t be thinking about fame and honors – you should only be thinking about the rhythm of a sentence.” Call that clarity about what the work actually is that needs to be done. Call that the purity of intrinsic motivation. Call that “start with why.”
I think of other illustrations of such clarity. Michael Jordan and his “love of the game” clause; he was allowed to play basketball, anywhere, anytime he wanted to; and he did, in pick-up games in many places. (Not every player had/has that in their contract).
Or, consider Steve Jobs and his obsession about his products. He certainly had the equivalent of “he loved sentences – the rhythm of a sentence” in his work in a different arena.
Here’s the question – what do you genuinely, deeply love in and about your actual work? Not the fame; not the prestige; not the honors; not the money…but the work; the work itself.
Find that, develop that, and your work will probably be better for it, don’t you think?
Professional Speaker & Writer
Co-founder, First Friday Book Synopsis
I hope everyone got a chance to read Heather’s awesome blog on employee engagement yesterday. It’s a topic that has been much on my mind the last two weeks (it is a current research topic for me). As Heather mentioned, there is a huge employee disengagement problem going on right now and it has had a profound financial impact on organizations. Even worse, disengagement tends to erode morale, negatively impact team dynamics, and threaten innovation.
In my research on this topic, I frequently find references to the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Drive looks at what motivates us to be high performers and achievers; it isn’t what you’d think. According to the sociological experiments cited in the book, higher pay isn’t the great motivator it is thought to be. In fact, for tasks that demanded a higher level of cognitive skill, higher pay produced a poorer performance. Who knew??
Pink lists basic things we need: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Whether at home or at work, we need these things to stay motivated—to feel in control of our own lives, to create and learn new things, and to feel that we are making a difference in the world.
I was struck by this passage:
“The most successful people, the evidence shows, often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success. They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because of their internal desire to control their lives, learn about the world, and accomplish something that endures.”
This is a spot-on assessment, at least in my experience. Have you known people who were never satisfied for long with any job, even jobs that provided many opportunities for professional growth and development, even if they liked the job and their co-workers, and even if they had a decent salary, because they wanted, but didn’t necessarily need, a higher salary? For many of us, money is the only measure of success and we think it is what we need to be happy. I’ve known people to go from job to job in search of ever more money because that was the only need they focused on, at the expense of their other needs. No matter how much we feel our skills are worth, sometimes a job that meets those three basic needs Pink mentions is where we will be the happiest, most productive, and most engaged, and where we will find the type of contentment that money can’t buy.
This being said, I will freely admit that the need for autonomy is sometimes the most difficult need to meet. I have spent the last decade and a half working in libraries—a field that offers many opportunities to learn and endless intellectual rewards but few financial ones (I know you thought librarians were in it for the money, right??). What made me stay in those jobs where I barely made enough to cover rent was my dedication to the overall mission of libraries and my desire to make a difference in the lives of others. However, I have had to turn down a few jobs that I felt I would have loved because they didn’t pay the minimum I needed to support myself. This almost certainly would have ended up making me not love those jobs eventually. Being adequately compensated is a must before you can focus on your other needs.
Mastery and purpose come more easily if a) you are compensated with what you need to take care of yourself and your family and b) you have a leader who will help you meet these needs by providing opportunities for growth and learning and who will instill a real sense of the organization’s mission. These needs have been easier for me to meet, typically. Even in jobs I didn’t like, I still felt driven to acquire and master new skills and was always driven to do the work in a way that would cause me no regrets down the road. My purpose in any job is always tied to my own personal goals of doing my best and learning new things, whenever possible. But with bad leadership, it’s difficult to maintain a high level of engagement, no matter your personal work ethic because your basic needs won’t be met. If you have a leader who can help you align your personal goals with the overall mission of the organization, as well as encourage you to hone your skills, you’ll find yourself not only engaged at a high level, but performing at a high level.