Communicating Effectively with 4 Generations in the Workplace

In our last article about what to expect when working with the four generations that make up the workforce, we mentioned that communication is one of the most effective ways to bridge the generational gap. While communication styles vary among individuals, understanding generational characteristics provides a starting point for effective, multi-generational communication. As Forbes points out, Traditionalists (born before 1946), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979), and Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) have differing values because of when they grew up, and those value sets have caused “conflicting communication styles” to develop across generations.

Traditionalists

Though Traditionalists have largely retired or transitioned away from full-time work, those who remain in the workforce have invaluable experience and insight to share with younger coworkers. When they started working, strict hierarchies and formal workplace settings were the norm, and as a result they prefer to be addressed with titles and last names (e.g. “Ma’am,” or “Mr. Smith” rather than first names). Traditionalists expect information to flow “from the top down,” so managers should communicate orders directly rather than having a younger coworker pass along instructions. Since many Traditionalists did not grow up using phones or email to communicate with friends and family, they prefer face-to-face communication or written memos in the workplace as well. The West Midland Family Center, a US-based community-building organisation, notes that Traditionalists respond well to messages that invoke the history or tradition of a company and how those messages fit in. If you’re trying to convince a Traditionalist to start logging customer interactions in a database rather than by hand, you might point out your company’s history of providing quality customer service rather than simply stating the effectiveness of this method.

Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers spent their early years questioning authority, so they tend to be less formal than Traditionalists in the workplace. Though they may have spent their heyday questioning the rules, once Baby Boomers joined the workforce they came to understand the need to work hard and attain results. As a result, they prefer communication to come often and to be thorough and direct. Boomers like in-person communication, with phone calls reserved for urgent situations. Though Baby Boomers sometimes have a reputation for being resistant to change, Bright Hub points out that this generation is actually quite open to change and  progress - they just want to hear the evidence and the reasoning behind new initiatives so they can be sure it’s the right way to go. Finally, Baby Boomers like to feel respected for their years of hard work and the knowledge they’ve gained over that time. They will gladly learn new methods and technologies, but be careful of dismissing their concerns by calling something “easy” and getting exasperated if they don’t catch on right away.

Generation X

As Griffith University points out in a recent white paper, Generation X is now assuming the majority of leadership roles in organisations as Baby Boomers and Traditionalists approach retirement or adopt reduced work schedules. They are defining the new standards and norms, and are often charged with “bridging the gap” between the younger and older generations. Gen Xers grew up in families with working and/or divorced parents, and as a result are more independent than preceding generations. Since members of Generation X are largely self-reliant, messages that emphasize “what’s in it for them” will resonate more strongly than messaging based on tradition or company loyalty. Gen Xers loathe long meetings and will communicate factual information via email rather than calling an unnecessary meeting. Like Baby Boomers, they prefer direct, transparent communication, but they value brevity above all, since they don’t like for work to cut into family or personal time. When, for instance, instituting a change in policy, send an email detailing the changes and how it affects their work rather than calling them in for a meeting.

Millennials

Like their Generation X colleagues, Millennials prefer to receive factual information via email, with in-person meetings reserved for collaborative decision-making or group work. They also like short, to-the-point, soundbite-format information, but as RMIT University points out, this is a requirement for Millennials rather than a preference. A long email about policies and procedures will not be effective for Millennials, as they will see this as a waste of time. Instead, a short summary with a link they can click to learn more is preferred. The Library of Professional Coaching warns against the “my way or the highway” approach when communicating with Millennials, since they will likely “take the highway” and start looking for other opportunities. This generation also bristles at jargon and “corporate-speak,” preferring transparent messaging which clearly defines the reasoning behind major decisions. Given that Millennials tend to be quite social-minded and generally like to be conscious of diversity concerns, providing them with training for interacting with their older coworkers can go a long way. While they may get frustrated when older colleagues don’t respond to urgent emails right away, they will gladly pick up a phone if they know that will garner faster results. Ultimately, Millennials want their voices to be heard, and they don’t want to be discredited or “talked down to” because of their age. Simply asking a Millennial for their thoughts, even if it can’t change the final outcome, can be very important.

There may be more common ground among the generations than one would think. Interestingly enough, the Huffington Post presents research that shows all generations prefer face-to-face communication for important issues. And while Millennials have a reputation for constantly texting, they don’t want to handle work issues this way - they want to keep their channels of communication for work and their personal lives separate. Ultimately, we all want to feel respected and valued, regardless of when we were born. Taking some time to learn your colleagues' communication styles and going out of your way to use their preferred medium every once in a while is a great place to start.