Battle of the Ages
Generational conflicts are bad for business.
Catherine Johns, a communications specialist, remembers an encounter when the new kids on the block went up against the old guard…at work.
In a training exercise, she had been paired with a younger woman. The leader of the exercise instructed the younger woman to list five items in a category that Johns would choose. So, Johns asked for Beatles songs.
A long pause followed. “Well,” her partner ventured, “I know there was one called ‘Help Me.’”
“I was floored,” says Johns.
While Johns experienced only a brief glitch in the exercise, differing generational attitudes and values can lead to trouble in the workplace, too, says Robert Wendover, director of the Center for Generational Studies.
Think “trouble” is an overstatement?
Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman, authors of “When Generations Collide,” agree that differences among older and younger workers can lead to pain, resentment and hurt feelings.
Older workers bandy about negative labels such as “slacker,” and younger ones make the assumption that Baby Boomers are clueless when it comes to technology.
Such stereotyping hinders communication and hurts business, say the authors.
One major source of potential conflict, Wednover says, is varying interpretations of work ethic.
“Older people live to work, while younger people work to live,” he says.
Or, as Peter Fleischer, partner in charge of the workplace communications practice at a public relations firm, puts it: “Younger workers see work as an enabler of play at an earlier age than other generations.”
Views also differ when it comes to career pacing.
Wendover says an old joke among Boomers was, if you have a bad boss wait a few years until he gets promoted.But, because younger workers rarely expect to spend their entire careers with one company, they aren’t willing to wait around if they feel frustrated on the job.
Their need for quick results, as well as a tendency to be less formal than previous generations, prompts them to challenge the status quo.
“Gen Xers are very good problem solvers and will have no qualms about telling their supervisor, ‘You may be in charge, but what you’re saying doesn’t make sense.’”
However, an older worker would expect more diplomacy and might take offense.
At the same time, younger employees may set themselves up for disappointment by expecting too much too soon.
Stillman relates the story of an Xer who complained that she’d given her all at work but had no idea what her boss thought of her performance.
She had been on the job two weeks.
Marie Swain, assistant director for the admissions department at a hospitality institute, manages to bridge generational divides.
She oversees a staff of eight, ranging in age from 21 to 52.
She says younger workers offer energy and innovation but may run the risk of appearing too casual.
For example, she says using descriptions such as “really cool” and “awesome” conveys the wrong message.
“It’s very important to reflect that business is serious,” she says.
Swain says when she’s trying to motivate people, it helps to be aware of different staffers’ mindsets.
Older employees often see the benefits in what already works, which can make them more resistant to change.
In that case, she lets them vent their concerns about new methods.
When explaining what she wants from younger workers, she tries to use examples they can relate to on a personal level.
Fleischer echoes this point: “Young workers have a lot less tolerance for lectures. The need tangible examples of ‘how this affects me.’”
Another area of possible discord is professional presence.
“Things like dress, grooming, carriage, chewing gum or using slang do matter,” says Pamela Holland, co-author of “Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move?”
Roseann Sullivan, president of Sullivan Communications, sees pitfalls in terms of presentation according to gender, as well as generation.
“Older women may not speak up because they have a tendency to wait to be called on. A younger woman may speak up, but because she doesn’t speak authoritatively, nobody pays attention.”
In particular, she says, younger females tend to speak quickly, which sends the message that “I’m not that valuable.”
Other concerns for young women include: a questioning voice inflection, being too soft spoken, being too deferential or sounding cute.
Experts say mutual respect, flexibility and creating open dialogue will help workers get on the same page in terms of communication styles.
Some businesses manage to get the best of both worlds.
Susan Diamond, 45 and Johanna White, 27, run a successful consulting group.
“It’s been great for us,” says Diamond. “Johanna has a master’s degree, whereas I didn’t finish college, but I have 25 years of experience.
“I’m a know-it-all by nature, and I never expected to learn so much from her.”