Connecting Gens: Communicating and Engaging With The Multi-Generational Workforce

by Mona DelSole

With up to five generations in today’s workplace, communicating and engaging across generations can be challenging. As leaders, you want to get it right from the start and for many reasons.

For instance, studies show that poor intergenerational communication in the workplace can disrupt employee productivity, diminish engagement, contribute to turnover, and damage relationships. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, and sometimes no communication at all are issues that frequently arise.

What makes communicating and engaging among the generations so difficult? As a leadership consultant and university business school faculty member, people share their stories with me about generational challenges in the workplace. Frequently, communication disconnects are found to be the root cause.     

Embracing the perspective that all generations genuinely want to do well and understanding that communication characteristics among generations vary significantly can help. Realizing, too, that our individual assumptions/stereotypes about age – opinions about older and younger generations, can get in the way of genuine connection. With new insights, positive change occurs, and relationships grow among age-diverse groups.

Recognizing and appreciating the uniqueness of each generation’s style and their motivators and getting to know people as individuals is an important first step toward thriving as a leader and enjoying the benefits of a multi-generational environment. Instead of clashing about generational differences, we can reframe and refocus on strengths. 

A snapshot of the generations in today’s workplace:

  • Baby Boomer (ages 55-73):  They are staying in the workplace longer and redefining retirement. Baby boomers are an ambitious, goal-oriented generation. They prefer formal and direct communications, face-to-face, phone, and email.
  • Generation X (ages 35 – 54): This generation is resourceful and appreciates the value of working independently. They are informal and flexible in their communications and prefer short messages, email, phone, text, and Facebook.
  • Millennials (ages 23 – 38): They comprise/soon will comprise (depending on industry) the largest segment of the American workforce. Millennials highly value training and mentoring (co-mentoring and coaching programs). They value authentic, quick communications with a preference for text, chat, email, and Instagram. They are a digital-first generation.
  • Gen Z (ages 22 and younger): Make room for the newest gen entering the workforce, graduating from high school and college. They want projects that they can be passionate about and are the most tech-savvy of all. Gen Z prefers visual communications: face-to-face (primarily at work), FaceTime, YouTube, and more. They value a video/mobile approach.

While it helps to understand generational communication preferences and motivators, they best serve as a starting point towards connecting gens in the workplace. 

Here are five tips to help you succeed as you lead:

  • Get to Know Individuals:  Practice being self-aware to avoid assumptions and stereotypes. Getting to know an individual for who they are and personalizing communication is always the best path toward building trust and genuine relationships.
  • Establish A Co-Mentoring Program:  This is especially powerful in succession planning, when sharing knowledge from one generation to another is critical to an organization’s future. Think family business, law firm legacy, and other specialties. It’s an opportunity to deepen generational communication, knowledge share, build trust and create opportunities for future generations.
  • Ask Questions: Open-ended questions are best. Example: When an important communication ends, ask:  How would you like me to follow up with you?
  • Utilize Various Communication Tools/Channels:  Mix it up: email, in-person, text, and social platforms. Consider all options available that make you accessible to multiple generations and create opportunities for others to connect with you.
  • Focus On Commonalities: Connecting on commonalities is one of the most important steps that you can take to establish rapport. Identify similarities and the reasons you and your listener want to communicate, then build a bridge. Ask questions, listen to learn, and be available to strengthen relationships.

There is always a way to bridge the generational divide at work. It begins with leaders who offer new insights about communication, recognize motivators, breakthrough stereotypes, and build upon the unique individual strengths within the workplace. With renewed perspective, we can implement useful strategies enriching and advancing our multi-generational workplace.

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