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.
Last week we talked about what millennials look for in jobs and what they require for engagement. We looked at some of the ways they are different from Generation X (my generation) and baby boomers, who they will outnumber shortly. Some of you may have read last week’s post and thought, “Oh great. Another blog post about millenials. This topic is soooo tired.”
But, please, allow me to belabor the point a bit longer. This is a topic managers need to pay attention to because they need to be proactive in how they address future changes in their organizations. Boomers and Gen Xers are still trying to acclimate to the influx of millennials in some fields and learning more about how they will handle management roles can help us with succession planning. As boomers retire, millennials will be moving more into supervisory positions but, according to studies, there are some skill gaps that must be addressed before we can expect a successful transition in management.
(You may be asking “But what about Xers? When are THEY going to get those supervisory positions?” We’ll get to the plight of the poor, maligned, and outnumbered Gen Xers another time. For now, let’s consider skill gaps.)
Mind the gaps
According to “Multi-Generational Training in the Public Sector,” a survey by CPS HR Consulting, millennial participants described themselves thusly:
- I value balance and teamwork.
- I am sociable and like collaboration.
- I am resilient to change.
- I value diversity and inclusion.
- I like to be challenged.
- I like flexible working hours.
- I like to learn new things and see a career as a learning environment for self-fulfillment.
- I would rather send an e-mail or text message than pick up the phone.
- I like positive reinforcement and feedback that is direct, respectable, and goal-focused.
The survey revealed that millennials lack skills in the areas of customer service, oral communication, and critical thinking. They also, like their boomer and Xer elders, lack skills in the areas of conflict management, stress management, change management, written communication, and time management. Millennials and Xers both have trouble with supervision and leadership. How do we address these gaps?
Bridging skill gaps
Different generations have different learning styles and process information in different ways. Boomers can help bridge the supervision and leadership skill gaps by conveying their knowledge and offering advice through mentoring and collaboration efforts but other approaches may be needed for the other deficiencies. The CPS survey suggests that in-class and online training may be the key to addressing each generation’s learning needs. :
This can be in-class training or online, or a hybrid of the two. In-class training remains the most effective method across all age groups. Millennials are very comfortable with technology which expands their options when it comes to training delivery: self-paced online training is almost as effective as in-class training for this group, and Millennials also fared better in remote/virtual live training.
The importance of mentoring and coaching between the generations cannot be stressed enough but training should be considered a necessary component of employee development in all organizations. One of the great things about millennials is that they are highly adaptable and, due to their comfort level with technology and openness to coaching and mentoring, there are many options for training them. Gen Xers can also benefit from various forms of training but HR, like marketers and the media, may be less inclined to acknowledge them as a unique subset of the population with their own unique learning needs and skill gaps (we will look into this more in a future post).
When managing multiple generations, understand that you are working with a diverse set of skills and that your employees will be working at different levels of proficiency in certain areas. Also understand that it is possible to improve job skills and facilitate engagement through training, coaching, and mentoring. Most importantly, be aware of the possibilities that collaboration can offer your organization when you have a multi-generational workforce with a diverse set of experiences.
Next week, we will focus our attention on the plight of Generation X, consider issues that can cause communication problems between the generations, and look at ways to deal with these issues.
One of my recent work-related research topics is the recruitment and management of millennials. If you’ve been on the Internet in the past few years, you know there is no shortage of articles and blog posts dedicated to this subject. New ones are churned out hourly. Millennials are a big deal for marketers, recruiters, and managers. They offer so many opportunities for growth and innovation but they are like strange little beings fallen to Earth whose behaviors we must study, so that we can learn to harness their awesome powers of adaptability, social connectivity skills, and knack for figuring out techy things like the iPods and the Tumblr. Or so some of the articles say. Really, millennials aren’t that strange and, in many ways, they aren’t that different from their predecessors—but they do have different expectations for job engagement and job satisfaction that hiring managers should be aware of.
Millennials are often discussed in relation to baby boomers and Generation X. The start and end dates of these categories are a bit fuzzy at times. By some accounts, I’m a millennial, but by most of the others I’ve read, I’m an Xer. I tend to think of myself as an Xer and will, for the sake of this blog, keep myself in that category.
You may wonder, as I often have, why we need these categories. Aren’t we living in a post-category society yet? On the great space-time continuum, aren’t we all just a cluster of specks seeking employment, food, shelter, the usual, in much the same way? However, after spending some time researching this topic, I began to see that there are valid reasons for the amount of time spent analyzing millennial needs and behaviors: Organizations have finally realized that the future is a thing you have to plan for.
The current near-obsessive interest in millennials has everything to do with succession planning. What is succession planning exactly?
Succession planning is a process whereby an organization ensures that employees are recruited and developed to fill each key role within the company. Through your succession planning process, you recruit superior employees, develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities, and prepare them for advancement or promotion into ever more challenging roles.
Actively pursuing succession planning ensures that employees are constantly developed to fill each needed role. As your organization expands, loses key employees, provides promotional opportunities, and increases sales, your succession planning guarantees that you have employees on hand ready and waiting to fill new roles.
It’s sad to think that we will move on, retire, be cryogenically frozen, move to off-world colonies or whatever in the future but it’s inevitable. If we care about the future success of our organizations, we have to instill our mission and values in our future leaders: millennials. (Don’t panic).
Millennials are already well-established in all the fields. Also, there’s A LOT OF THEM. They are working with people who are their parents’ age, or older in some cases. One study I read claimed that 12% of employed personnel are over 60. This number shocked me, or would have, if I hadn’t noticed this happening within my own field years ago.
My field, information science (or library science, depending on which side of that debate you fall on) is full of millennials now. But it’s also full of Xers. And baby boomers. The rash of retirements that was predicted when I first entered the field? Well, those didn’t happen so much. The good news is, we have such a wide variety and wealth of experience spread across the generations in our profession. The bad news is, there is sometimes tension between the older “conservators” and the younger “innovators” and a sometimes daunting technology gap. We need the knowledge the experienced conservators have and the creativity of the young, fresh innovators—and all of us need to be tech savvy. What I mean by tech savvy isn’t a near-genius level understanding of computer science and Jedi-like coding skills but a willingness to learn and adapt to new technologies. Millennials are extremely adaptable and willing to learn new things. Xers and boomers take note: millennials may be able to teach us how to be better at this.
Studies indicate (as does personal experience) that Boomers and Xers are slower, and more reluctant, to change because change can be threatening and learning new ways of doing a thing can be difficult; there can also be a perception that change doesn’t always lead to something better. Millennials are less cautious about embracing change. They are also better than my generation at working in teams, value the collaboration process, and see a career as a learning environment for self-fulfillment. (see the CPS Report, “HR Survey Series: Multi-Generational Training in the Public Sector”). They want to work in organizations that will provide opportunities for them to utilize these skills.
As Heather mentioned in her blog yesterday, we look for certain characteristics in a good boss: “An ideal boss is pleasant, approachable, understanding, caring, serves as an adviser and supporter, is flexible and open-minded, respects, values and appreciates employees, and has good management skills.” Millennials value these characteristics but also seek out opportunities in their jobs to make a difference in the world (as Daniel Pink has told us, this is one of the keys to engagement) and want to work in a diverse environment—their ideal manager will share these values.
An awareness of these differences and expectations is necessary for successful succession planning. In order to achieve a smooth transition to new leadership, it is important to consider not only the new wonderful things millennials bring to the table but also consider possible skill gaps, gaps in communication between generations, and how we can bridge those gaps. These are things we will look at next week.