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Article Listing | Search Articles | More Articles in Employers | More Articles by Simma Lieberman and Kate Berardo

Communicating across Generations in the Workplace

by Simma Lieberman and Kate Berardo - 01/05/2009
Issues of race, gender, culture, and sexual orientation have dominated the diversity arena for some time, leaving lurking in the darkness a difference that causes daily miscommunication and prevents untold numbers of relationships from being built: generational differences. The unsung hero of difficulty, communication across generations is often fraught with assumptions, frustrations, and misunderstanding.

Why Generational Differences Matter

The environment that surrounded you as you grew up shaped your life in more ways than you may realize. World events, like wars, depression, or conversely economic prosperity, shape generations. So does technological change--did you grow up with the radio, TV, computer, or iPod as your electronic of choice? Music, politics of the time, ideas about what it means to be a family--these too shape how different generations view and appreciate the life around them.

Translated into workplace terms, this often means different values, ideas, work ethics, attitudes toward authority, and outlooks on life. Though the U.S. workplace culture values speed ("time is money") and hard work, just how fast you work and what is hard work, will be subject to generational interpretation.
This means the possible combinations of inter-generational conflict can be great. Common complaints you hear from older generations about younger generations are that they are speed-obsessed, too casual and informal, unappreciative of traditional ways of doing things, and technology dependent (as in, they don't value face-to-face communication enough). On the flip side, you can hear younger generations complaining that older generations are out-of-date, stuck in their ways, too stiff, and completely computer unsavvy (as in, they won't IM with me and take too long to respond to my emails). Many generations feel like they are not respected by other generations, and often that they are discriminated against because of their age (age bias).

In the article below, we highlight our best tips for working across such generational differences.
But before we do that, we need to add one final point. Generational differences exist among a field of differences, including race, gender, sexual orientation and culture. These other differences need to be taken into consideration. Some cultures, for example, value youth, while others value the wisdom of old age. Look at how older family members are treated within a family to get an idea of the predominant value in different cultures: are older family members put in old-folk homes when they need assistance or are they cared for by family members?

Like all difference, generalizations about generational differences should be used only as guidelines to help you understand what might be preventing understanding. You goal should be to move from the categories (be it, white, gay/lesbian, Korean, or Baby Boomer) to the people themselves (Samantha, Chung, Mr. Yamamoto, and Consuela) quickly and accurately.

Simma Lieberman Associates offers generational programs that include topics like What Generation Xers value, Speaking so Boomers will hear you, and Managing Nexters. To learn how understanding the generational divide can improve productivity and work relationships, contact Simma directly at (510)-527-0700.

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