Nurture Understanding Between Generations for a Peaceful Workplace

Is there frustration building in your organization due to clashing generations about work? If so, you are not alone. The good news is it doesn’t need to trigger an explosion.

In many workplaces, Baby Boomer and Gen X supervisors are exasperated with younger workers — typically those in the Millennial generation, who were born between 1981 and 2000. Some older supervisors have trouble managing the younger workers.

By the same token, Millennial generation employees often are demoralized by an environment they do not find conducive to doing their best work.

Be Proactive

If you are facing these issues, don’t wait for things to get out of hand. It’s better to be proactive and sensitize employees and supervisors to generational differences in typical attitudes and expectations about work.

When a problem is evident, don’t just hope it will go away or tell a younger employee chafing under the supervision and communication style of a Baby Boomer boss, “this is the way it is around here.”

One basic preemptive problem-solving strategy is to explain each group to the other. Understanding why each generation behaves as it does allows supervisors and workers to overcome the belief that one party is merely going out of its way to annoy or undermine the other. Next, improve on the golden rule. Instead of treating people the way you want them to treat you, treat them the way they want to be treated — within reason.

An “aha moment” for Boomer and Gen X supervisors in understanding how Millennials want to be treated often comes when they are asked about how they raised their children. The younger generation was constantly told they were special. They won trophies merely for participating on sports teams (winning optional) and were heavily programmed with organized activities during their childhoods. Their school essays may have been proofread by their parents. All of these experiences lead to certain expectations in the work environment.

In particular, these employees often expect lots of feedback (especially praise) and direction. They may also have less respect for hierarchies if they viewed their parents more as friends than as authority figures.

Life is too Short?

Many Millennials developed certain attitudes about work by witnessing the fate of some Boomer parents who devoted themselves fully to their jobs and companies, worked long hours without complaint, only to be laid off during times of economic difficulty. This can lead to an attitude that life is too short to sacrifice yourself for a job that might disappear without warning.

Other common differences:

  • Millennials are more interested in collaboration and teamwork, while Generation Xers and Baby Boomers are more independent.
  • Millennials communicate through technology, while Boomers prefer face-to-face interaction.
  • Some Millennials resent having to perform menial tasks and resist the idea that you have to work your way up in an organization while Boomers and Gen Xers believe in the concept of “paying your dues.”

A Two-Way Street

Mitigating inter-generational conflict is a two-way street. Millennials may need to be coached about the meaning of concepts such as initiative and “ownership” of projects. You may want to advise them to narrow down their requests from supervisors.

When Millennials are sensitized to such issues, along with generational attitude differences, they may walk away realizing: “My boss isn’t an evil person, just a product of his time.” They may become content to make a few adjustments to “meet the boss in the middle,” or perhaps embrace a more Boomer or Gen X-like attitude.

When older supervisors are encouraged to make some accommodations to the emotional needs of younger workers, a common response is: “Hey, nobody did that for me.” However, their grumbling may soften when they learn that the accommodations they need to make often aren’t very time-consuming — and they can bring positive results. Examples include sending an occasional thank-you note for a job well done, or cc’ing a boss on an e-mail praising a younger employee.

Some members of each generation are probably going to conclude that those of other generations are wrong and “just need to get over it.” But the differences are not going away. Compromise is key, and if all sides are willing to give a little, the workplace can be a much more productive and pleasant place to be.

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