You probably work with people who’re older or younger than you by a couple of decades. And the way they go about their business is markedly different from the way you do. Here are some tips on how to work well together, despite the differences. Words: Janine Jellars.
Your boss – who insists you address him as Mr Labuschagne – organises meeting after lengthy meeting and bombards you with memos. And then there’s your over-confident 20-year-old assistant, Tammy, who never unplugs from her iPod. She’s just sent you a text: ‘Hi! Sori, can’t come in 2day. Report in inbox. C u 2moro. Kthxbai.’ Huh?
Mind the gap
Don’t worry, it’s not you – it’s them. Mr Labuschagne comes from the bygone era of The Classic Company Man, while Tammy is just a normal Millennial for whom SMS-speak is an official language.
‘Generational theory explains that the era in which a person was born affects the development of their view of the world,’ says strategy consultant Dr Graeme Codrington. Of course, this isn’t set in stone. ‘Generational theory is a general theory,’ says Barrie Bramley, co-founder of management consultancy TomorrowToday.biz. ‘But, when you compare people across the globe within a similar age bracket, there are similarities from a values perspective. This is simply because they have similar environmental influences acting on them. For example, it would be accurate to say that 15-year-olds have similar values with regard to protecting the planet – which differ from those of 60-year-olds, no matter where they come from.’
In the workplace, it’s become important to understand these differences as we’re living in an era where four distinct generations – Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials – work side-by-side.
‘At work, generational differences can affect everything, including recruiting, building teams, dealing with change, motivating, managing, and maintaining and increasing productivity,’ wrote Greg Hammill while at the Fairleigh Dickinson University Silberman College of Business. ‘Each generation has distinct attitudes, behaviours, expectations, habits and motivational buttons.’
But where do these distinct attitudes come from? In Mind the Gap (Penguin), Sue Grant-Marshall and Dr Graeme Codrington write that ‘Each generation has reacted to the way in which his parents worked and the dominant workplace cultures and ethics that prevailed when he was an impressionable child.’
Think about Generation X: they grew up as Latchkey Kids and, now that they’re in the workforce (as rapidly rising 20- to 30-something professionals), work/life balance – which their parents never had – has become non-negotiable.
How different are we?
‘Across the generations, the way of working is different,’ says Charlene van Onselen of N-Beginnings business consultancy. Our communication styles, attitude to work and even our conceptions of what constitutes ‘a career’ differ immensely across the generational divide.
For example, job-hopping and creating a portfolio of skills – which are prevalent amongst Gen Xers and Millennials – was anathema to Veterans, who tended to remain loyal to one company or industry throughout their lives.
According to Mind the Gap, their attitude was ‘I work hard because it’s my duty to do so’. The mantra for Baby Boomers – who now occupy mid- to senior management positions – is ‘Work is self-fulfilling; it makes me feel important’. Gen X see work as a means to fund their lifestyles and Millennials, who are just entering the workforce, want to change the world through their jobs.
Our views on loyalty and security, says Bramley, are also different, with young people less attached to The Big Corporation. ‘To those whose wisdom includes loyalty to a company …young people come across as “lazy” and “entitled”. But they’re not. They simply don’t share those values. Their success, as they see it, will be secured by ensuring they get ahead at all costs. Their loyalty is not to the company, it’s to their network. They expect to get their next job through their own network and rely less on their managers or the company they work for.’
How do we see careers?
‘All generations value work,’ says Bramley. ‘It’s the priority they give it that differs. Work for Boomers sits far higher on the priority list than for Xers and Millennials. If Boomers “live to work”, then Xers and Millennials “work to have a life”.’
For earlier generations, such as the Veterans, there was no such thing as ‘balance’. ‘You worked hard and there was little balance in your life. Balance kicked in when you retired,’ write Dr Codrington and Grant-Marshall. Overscheduled, helicopter-parented Millennials will see work ‘as just one more thing or activity they will need to balance in their lives’.
The office environment has also changed. The starched, hierarchical, suit-and-tie era of Mr Labuschagne has, for the most part, been replaced with a more relaxed environment. This was spearheaded by the Boomers. ‘Boomers introduced chats at the tea trolley or water cooler, radios and piped music,’ write Dr Codrington and Grant-Marshall. However, given their competitive nature, they still place some value on a pecking order.
Xers, on the other hand, ‘don’t understand why boomers are so concerned about designated parking’. They also don’t understand the obsession with clock-watching. ‘Don’t tell me to be at the office at 8am when I have worked from midnight to 5am because that’s when my biological clock tells me to work,’ is how Dr Codrington and Grant-Marshall describe their mindset. By the time Millennials ascend in their professions, the changes pioneered by Xers (family-friendly workplaces with crèches, gyms and schools) will probably have become the norm.
What happens when different generations are thrown together into a team? Often, chaos and resentment. But, by understanding what motivates each of them, this can be avoided. Veterans and Boomers see teams as interdependent, while teamwork, for Xers and Millennials, is based on individual autonomy.
For Veterans, ‘a team has a leader …and workers. As leaders, they were bossy, spoke down to their workers, didn’t give reasons, didn’t tolerate dissenting views and carried on regardless of everybody else,’ write Dr Codrington and Grant-Marshall.
Boomers place value on teamwork, but believe that everyone has to ‘buy in’ to the vision of the team. This generation introduced the jargon ‘team player’ and the concept of team building.
‘Xers believe that team members should build on separate strengths… “We are all individuals so what is my point of difference? What is my unique contribution?”,’ write Dr Codrington and Grant-Marshall. Unlike Boomers, they don’t believe everyone ‘has to be on the same page’.
Millennials, says Van Onselen, are natur
al team players, believe in individual strengths and are not afraid of not knowing something. They’ll often leverage the knowledge of another team member to make up for their own gaps, she says.
Communication across generations
‘Communication is the biggest sticking point across the generations,’ points out Van Onselen. That’s because the way we communicate has changed with the media, tools and technology at our disposal.
‘[Boomers] entered a workplace without wirelessness, cellphones and laptops. The most effective way to communicate was through a face-to-face conversation,’ says Bramley. ‘Today’s younger people entered the workplace with an entirely new set of tools. For them, writing (e-mail and SMS) is the most efficient form of communication. If that doesn’t work, they phone. The least efficient form of communication for them is face-to-face. This creates an obvious problem.’
This explains why Boomers love meetings, Xers often won’t follow up an e-mail with a phone call and why 20-year-old Tammy thinks it’s okay to SMS the boss. ‘You have to understand everyone’s frame of reference and look at the intent. The SMS from the youngster in the office isn’t done out of malice,’ says Van Onselen. If you’re offended by it, create rules around the best way to communicate, she says.
Our relationship to knowledge also differs across generations and this often causes frustration in the workplace. ‘Xers and Millennials can listen to the TV, SMS and maintain a conversation at the same time – they have a network model of handling information. Older generations seek in-depth knowledge. Expertise is seen as important,’ says Van Onselen.
Gen Xers were taught in a very linear manner and value depth of knowledge. Millennials, though, see information as expedient. ‘They only know a certain amount of information because anything else they need to know is a click away on the Internet,’ adds Van Onselen. Being an expert before moving up the career ladder doesn’t make sense to Millennials. Add that to their need for instant gratification and it’s easy to understand why they’re often impatient for upward mobility, she says.
How to manage the generation gap
‘You can’t manage a 50-year-old in the same style as a 25-year-old,’ says Bramley. ‘Fifty-year-olds want to be spoken to face-to-face. They value the physical personal contact. A 25-year-old can become frustrated by having to continually sit with their manager when they feel an e-mail or SMS would suffice.’
Managers need to tailor their style, but remain sincere and authentic. ‘Managers have to engage with the team and take the time to figure out what drives different generations and how they would prefer to be communicated with,’ says Van Onselen. ‘Don’t try to be what you’re not, but be open to new things. A good guideline is to ask yourself: “Where was this person in the 80s?” and then look at the changes that have occurred since then.’