The Multigenerational Workforce Communication Conundrum

There are distinct opportunities to learn from one another and synergize…but first we must trust each other enough to open the lines of communication.

By Dana Brownlee, President, Professionalism Matters, Inc.

As a corporate trainer, one of my most common training topics is communication. Indeed, effective communication skills are literally the lubricant that moves virtually all organizations forward. Unfortunately, with the ridiculously rapid advances in technology over the last few years, simple communications have become not so simple. When I was married just five years ago, if I had something important to tell my husband, I’d most likely pick up the phone and tell him. Just the other day, I sent him a text message with some important news and became increasingly agitated as I waited and waited for his return text, only to receive a completely insufficient response: “k.” Displeased by his lack of enthusiasm at my great news, I immediately picked up the phone and complained vehemently only to be embarrassed when he explained, “Dana, it’s great news, but I’m driving on 285 and just couldn’t type!” This type of miscommunication has become all too commonplace.

Recently, I was facilitating a team retreat and we’d just finished a communication activity and were discussing it. As I’d hoped, this led quickly to a broader discussion of communication challenges and issues within this particular team. One older woman began to speak openly about how she perceived there to be problems within the group with communications—ending her comments with an emphatic “We need to stop e-mailing and pick up the %^$# phone!”

I was so glad to hear her candor but a bit surprised at her level of frustration…then I was completely floored when I noticed that as she continued to speak, her voice began to crack and she seemed to become quite emotional, finally simply stopping and allowing someone else to speak. As others began to chime in, I thought to myself, “This is really deep.” It’s not just about the fact that younger generations may prefer text and e-mail while older generations sometimes lean more heavily on face-to-face or phone communications (although differences in preferred mode are HUGE) —what I really began to understand in that moment is that these differences can have a subsequent unintended impact on trust levels and morale within the organization. I later learned that she perceived e-mail responses to her phone calls (that she often received from her younger colleagues) to be a huge sign of disrespect, and I can only imagine that these misperceptions have inhibited her ability to bond with these colleagues of a different generation.

The complexities of communication have become much more pronounced in the workplace particularly since today’s workplace arguably includes four (soon to be five) different generations: Veterans (born before 1946) Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1979), Generation Y/Millennials (1980-2000)—comingling not so well in many cases. I think that most of us readily understand why we couldn’t cohabitate with our parents or children without a constant Prozac drip, but somehow we expect that work teams and organizations with heterogeneous mixes of ages, generations, backgrounds, and life experiences will not only coexist but team effectively by force of natural osmosis. Arguably, one of the areas of organizational dynamics that stresses the multigenerational workforce most is, indeed, communication. Anyone with children and parents knows that communication within each generation can differ drastically. These differences can be separated into primary types: the mode (how we communicate) and the message (what we say).

The Mode: Potential Differences and Dangers

This may be one of the most obvious communication distinctions among generations. Clearly, Millennials (and Gen Xers to a lesser extent) have grown up in a much different technological world than their more senior workplace counterparts. With technology continuing to change at lightning speed, these differences will likely only become more pronounced in coming years. One of the biggest problems in the workplace today is that most people simply default to their preferred mode of communication for most communications. Unfortunately, this approach (while convenient for the “sender”) can create significant frustration for the “receiver(s).” We all know people you can e-mail for days but will only get a response from when you pick up the phone and call them (or vice versa). The simple fact is that when employees constantly are communicated to in their least preferred mode, they not only become frustrated but also may misinterpret the sender’s intent and/or content. The Mehrabian Studies show that 93 percent of a message comes from the non-verbals (not the words), so those who rely almost exclusively on e-mail/text/IM may be taking huge risks with potential misinterpretation of their message (even taking offense with the impersonal delivery method), while those who rely instead on face to face and phone may similarly run a risk—in this case of not being efficient.

Suggestions

  • Discuss the issue and develop ground rules for the organization. There is no “right answer” for all situations; instead the key is to discuss what works best in your organization given your industry, clientele, corporate culture, etc., and document these ground rules for all.
  • As a group, avoid potential miscommunications via e-mail/text/IM, by establishing e-mail guidelines such as “avoid ALL CAPS and !!!!
  • Acknowledge the Business Communications Hierarchy and establish general guidelines for when to use each mode.
  • Ask all managers to have their employees share their individual preferred mode of communication. Then, for individual interactions encourage “customized communications” where the sender attempts to use the receiver’s preferred communication mode instead of defaulting to their preferred mode.
  • Offer training for employees who may not be as familiar with the latest technology (IM, Wikis, social media, Sharepoint, Evite, electronic sign-up applications, etc.) and may be being “left behind” or separated from counterparts actively communicating using these tools.

The Message: Potential Differences and Dangers

Clearly, with different generations there will be differences in level of formality, style of communicating, and even adherence to grammatical rules. In some instances, older workers have been accustomed to communicating (particularly to senior management) with much more formality, and they may equate this formality in communication with respect. When they’re not communicated with with the same formality, they may misinterpret this as a lack of respect. On the other end of the spectrum, Millennials and even Gen Xers may be much less formal in style—maybe using first names, emoticons, colloquial language, and more casual templates for written communications.

Although grammar rules may not have changed, the level of importance we attribute to them has shifted over time. During my college internships, I distinctly remember having a grammar textbook in my cubicle so I could quickly check grammar rules as I typed “memos.” I knew that using flawless grammar was expected in a professional environment. Years later as a full-time professional, I set up my e-mail application to automatically spell/grammar check outgoing messages when I hit send (assuming this was “good enough”). In recent years, I’ve received many e-mails where the sender simply includes the “grammar apology” as I call it: Please excuse any typos in this message as it’s being sent from a mobile device. The question of whether adherence to grammar rules still matters is an ongoing debate and one that certainly highlights differences in the generations. I’ve often noticed that a typo may be considered acceptable by some and obliterate the sender’s credibility with others. In my training classes I suggest erring on the side of always adhering to grammatical rules for that very reason. The difference in how different generations may interpret a typo, sentence fragment, incorrect use of punctuation, etc., often can be stark.

Suggestions

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of relationship building. With wide ranges in backgrounds and demographics, teams often (albeit unintentionally) develop cliques and don’t actively encourage employees from different generations to get to know each other and build strong relationships. Within the context of strong relationships, miscommunications are less common and even when they do happen tend to be less likely attributed to malicious intent.
  • Encourage employees to discuss differences. The temptation is to avoid discussing generational differences, but bringing them out in the open not only provides opportunities to learn from each other and actively develop group norms but it also helps employees better understand each other—the key to relationship building.
  • If there are basic expectations within the organization, make them known. Discuss the corporate culture. If it’s not acceptable for employees to e-mail clients with bullet-listed content, and instead formal memos on company letterhead are preferred, make that known and explain why it’s important.

While it’s critically important to be aware of multigenerational differences, one also should avoid the temptation to automatically stereotype an employee based on his or her age (or other characteristic for that matter). Clearly, individuals are just that and may not reflect the typical characteristics of their particular generational group. (For example, there are many older employees who embrace technology in their communications and younger workers who eschew it.) Likewise, one must recognize that many other factors also impact communication differences such as industry, corporate culture, gender differences, etc. Indeed, organizational communication is a complex organism—one that cannot be perfected, only improved. One key to such continuous improvement is not only understanding but embracing generational differences. The good news is that qualities of each generation can be beneficial for the larger organization. As such, there are distinct opportunities to learn from one another and synergize…but first we must trust each other enough to open the lines of communication.

Dana Brownlee is a keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is president of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at danapbrownlee@professionalismmatters.com.

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