Generational differences are an issue that affects work process,
teams, boss-subordinates and client relationships. It rears its nasty
head in that magnificent buzz-word, “communication breakdown.”
Generational differences are fraught with conflicting assumptions,
frustrations and misunderstanding. The same Gen-Yers who have not the
slightest difficulty working with issues of sexual orientation, culture
and color often find themselves and their elders going bonkers over
their generational differences.
What’s different about generational differences?
The world in which a person grows up shapes his life far more than he
or she realizes. The number of issues and experiences which can cause
interpersonal differences is extensive:
- Differing world events including wars and depressions versus economic prosperity.
- Differing religious experiences, including whether and how you were
churched or not churched. Jew, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, secular.
- Differing perspectives on family and human sexuality.
- Differing geographical experiences, including urban, suburban,
rural, deep South, Southwest, Upper Midwest, or all over the world (army
- Differing kinds and quality of education, including grade and high
school, public or private, state or tech colleges, private colleges,
major universities and elite schools.
- Differing educational focus such as vocational versus professional or liberal arts.
- Differing interests and attitudes about sports, music, etc.
Generational distinctions are usually tacit. That is, we are unaware
of them until problems, opportunities, misunderstandings and relations
force their presence into conversations. That can make them doubly
When all this is translated into workplace terms, it usually means
different values, ideas, objectives, work ethics, attitudes toward work
and authority and outlooks on life. Though today’s workplace culture
values speed, turnaround time, and how hard and how many hours you’re
willing to put in, all of this is subject to generational
interpretation. Toss in age bias and you have a perfect mix for
cross-generational conflict. Or, a perfect mix for fascinating,
enlightening, creative and fun work relationships.
Developing work relationships.
The foundations for successful work relations are the same no matter
what generation you belong to. When relations lack the glue of inherent
similarity, it’s the strategic smarts that make for success. All
relationships, whether up/down, sidewise, or extremely diverse are built
on the same communication foundation: mutual dialogue that involves disclosure, reciprocity, liking and respect.
Of course you can toss in all kinds of characteristics and skills, but
we believe these four are the overarching rubrics for the development
and maintenance of work relationships.
Relationships can’t work without conversations around these four
foundations, regardless of the setting. By conversation I mean a shared
inquiry, an act of thinking and reflecting together. Conversation, in
contrast to the mere advocacy of the idiocracy, is a living experience
of inquiry within and between people. So if you don’t
know how to talk, ask questions and/or reflect on ideas with another
person, you’re going to be stymied.
- Disclosure conversations. By definition, self-disclosing
messages reveal something about oneself. It may be background and
history, or, significantly personal opinions and underlying attitudes.
But disclosure is a dance between two or more people in which mutual
revelation takes place. Although self-disclosure loses its capacity for
achieving goals when used indiscriminately, it is best used as a
fundamental means of accomplishing significant objectives. Furthermore,
you can’t really connect with a person without self-disclosure. Studies
show that self-disclosure is not only valuable in relationship
maintenance, but also in cross-generational communication where one
party sees the other as possessing desirable knowledge.
- Reciprocity conversations. You scratch my back and I’ll
scratch yours is true in work just as it is in romance. It’s just that
the content differs. Without reciprocity, relationships, especially in
the work setting, come to an end. Extensive research, especially in
anthropology and sociology, point to both the necessity and immense
impact of reciprocity on relationships.
- Liking conversations. Although we can work with people we
don’t like, we tend to work better with those we like. The research on
liking captures the traits that are related to positive intentions such
as friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness and morality.
We show liking at work with the sharing of jokes, light teasing, coffee
together or a beer after work.
- Respect conversations. The research on respect emphasizes
competence and focuses on efficiency, intelligence, skill and
creativity. Although communication rules may keep you from saying
directly that you “respect” her, respecting is shown in the workplace by
conversations about one’s appreciation of her friendship, insights or
support, teamwork and so forth. Systematic research over the years
points out the necessity of both respect and liking as key
characteristics of effective relationships.
Strategic communication behaviors.
My protégé, Liam O’Dea, who’s nearly 50 years
younger than I, has spent the last five years working out the issues in
this blog with me. Without making our own example as the fundamental
model, we came up with two sets of communication strategies.
Acting on the basis of a social contract. The success of
what we call a social contract is based upon the understanding that
relevant problem solving and decision making are joint undertakings.
Social contracts between people give equal attention to both the
political and technical issues. When you work in collaboration, one
person doesn’t solve problems for the other. Instead, both are actively
involved, for example, in gathering information, setting goals, and
creating and following through on a solution. Social contracts require a
lot of talk about what we’re doing, how we go about it, how we divvy up
responsibility, where we’re stymied, etc. The collaborative role
requires a fair amount of conversational sophistication. There are
significant demands for authenticity and vulnerability. However, only
collaboration can provide for the quality of relationship that can
consistently meet the ever-growing demands of today’s business. To a
high degree, collaboration in the social contract is built upon
negotiation and re-negotiation. They are both inevitable.
Liam and I have a social contract that includes a great deal of
experience negotiating and renegotiating with each other. There’s a
terrific amount of liking and respect for each other, but we decided a
long time ago that handling each other with kid gloves is a waste. We
can always renegotiate—and we do!
Here are some verbal tidbits to give you a sense of what it may sound
like. Recently Liam asked for some insights into nonprofit proposal. D:
“I don’t know much about nonprofits.” L:“Yeah, but you work on a
proposal basis all the time.” D:“OK, but take what I say with a grain of
salt.” L: “Yeah, yeah.” D: “When I go about it, this is what I do,
blah, blah, blah.” L: ”Why are you giving me all that information? Just
answer my questions. I don’t need a long story to do this.” D: “Wait a
minute. I’m making a point for you.” L: “The clock is ticking.” D:
“That’s frustrating, but here goes.” L: “You’re not listening to me.
What’s the relevance of what you’re saying?” Etc. . . .
At the end of our conversation, Liam pulled it together and said,
“Well, we had to fuss a bit for me to get what I wanted from you. But,
that’s OK.” D: “Yeah, we usually do a lot of circling in the heat of
problem solving.” Again, bear in mind that Liam and I have a long
history and comfort level with each other. As you can tell from the
tidbits, we are both highly driven characters. Our direct language may
not be appropriate in the early stages of a relationship. The office
context may require you to be softer and more tactful, but we thought
our example would provide a useful illustration of the openness,
transparency and productivity that is possible.
What’s also obvious to us after such solutioning is that we both are
highly refreshed and satisfied at the conclusion of the process. We get
better thinking, better decisions, and better results. Notice that the
conversation included inquiry, advocacy, challenging, comments on the
communication, frustration, etc. These are typical in a social contract.
Unique cross-generational actions. Although the following
conversational behaviors take place in all effective relationships, we
believe that they are more necessary, even exaggerated in
- Conversational clarification. Asking and giving
explanations of terms and ideas is hugely necessary when
cross-generational conversations take place. Fifty years of difference
(for us) means that we often fail to share or understand meanings
between each other without clarification.
- Conversational listening. Although listening seems to be a
larger problem for me than Liam, we both jump to conclusions and draw
inferences very fast. Unless we’re listening intently to each other, we
don’t recognize the misunderstanding until the conversation is down the
pike. Since both of us talk concretely and abstractly very rapidly, on
occasion, each of us has to insist the other listen more intently.
- Conversational interruptions. Interruptions before one has finished his ideas create havoc. “Wait until I’m finished,” comes out of both our mouths readily.
- Conversational push-back. It’s important to learn to
identify disagreements, verbalize, and clarify them as soon as possible.
Although any and all conversations can be revisited at a later date,
the sooner you can push back on a person’s ideas, the more effective.
When there is immediate disagreement, then the push-back should take
place instantaneously. Typically, you may not realize your disagreement
until you’ve slept on the other’s ideas. We’ve found that next-day
push-back can be typical of our collaborative exercises
In part two we’ll lay out specific strategies that include examples, protocols and scripts for your use.