Millennials to Boomers: Let’s Call It a Communication Gap

The goal in cross-generational communication training is not to study Millennials like aliens from another planet, but rather to improve interpersonal skills among diverse age groups to everyone’s benefit.

As Baby Boomers gradually make way for Millennials in the workplace, developing cross-generational communication skills training is vital.

For example, a motor vehicle manufacturer depends on an extensive dealer base. While this manufacturer is a global corporation, the U.S. dealer base comprises many family owned and operated businesses. When succession happens in the dealership, dealer relations managers at the manufacturer often find themselves working with the adult children of their former contacts with unexpected challenges. We’ve been preparing for this generational watershed event for a while. Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd wrote about it in their 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “Are You Ready to Manage Five Generations of Workers?”: “…Baby Boomers will cede most of the workforce by 2015 to the Millennials. (Due to their smaller size, Gen X will never have the majority spot in the workplace—and so in essence, we will have skipped an entire generation by 2015.) When you consider the changes in the amount of knowledge available at our fingertips, the advent of social technologies, and the expansion of the global economy over those two generations, a workplace chasm could be emerging. What will this mean for how employers attract, develop and engage employees across multiple generations?”

So Here We Are in the Five-Generation Workplace In our motor vehicle manufacturing example, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers—and sometimes even Traditionalist (World War II generation) and Generation Z members—are having to relearn some of their interpersonal skills to facilitate smooth transitions as they engage with a more Millennial-oriented dealer base.

It’s not just in industries that rely on dealers. Any organization experiencing an influx of Millennials—which is almost all organizations—can encounter obstacles that impede productivity.

Communication skills training, focusing on cross-generational leadership can enhance the experience and improve success. The goal is more effective communication. But the approach is less about understanding slang, lingo, and technology from different decades than it is about assessing mindsets, motivation and stereotypes.

Sociology vs. Mythology

Popular culture, as it does with every generation, has molded a perception of Millennials as unrealistically idealistic, remote, snobbish about technology, expecting of continual validation, and motivated by an amorphous cloud of non-monetary rewards.

But science tells us through several recent studies that the goals, aspirations, and workplace expectations are more similar than they are different across all generations. Apparently, much of what we assume about Millennials is handy sitcom tropes; there’s some truth, but we need to look deeper.

Understanding the Conflicts

Some of the most common problems arising from generational differences include:

  • Overlooking the strengths other generations bring to the team.
  • Staying within silos of behavior by not being willing to adapt our behavior style due to mindset.
  • Inability to give or earn trust. This is also a result of a fixed mindset.

Take Stereotypes Off the Table

This can be fun, because the first step is defusing generational prejudice by putting them all on the table. This can be achieved through guided but informal group exercises to which everyone can relate, such as a game where common stereotypes are called out and notated with some levity and then explained for what they really are, if not debunked, e.g.:

  • Want to feel needed (this is Traditionalists)
  • Challenge authority (this is Baby Boomers)
  • Value work-life balance (this is Gen X)
  • Want and value feedback (this is Millennials)

Go ahead and add an element of Millennial stereotyping by setting up flash polls via text messaging within the training experience. Periodically break and take a poll of the room that can be instantly displayed and discussed. Replace the Stereotypes with Common Goals

Back to the studies mentioned above, most people in the workplace, of any age, share common goals, such as a desire to trust and be trusted, wanting to learn and grow, and being driven to achieve work-life balance and similar desires. Some approaches to achieve these common goals might include:

  • Understanding generational differences
  • Improving communication
  • Identifying/recognizing commonalities
  • Identifying best practices
  • Understanding what it means to be a trusted advisor
  • Establishing communication models to bring an openness and willingness to appreciate the other person, regardless of age.
  • Scenarios to role-play to better understand how to follow the communication model and build trust

Embrace the Differences and Build on Them

Multiple studies over the last decade suggest diverse groups that allow diverse opinions in collaborative efforts make better decisions than homogenous groups. It follows that there’s a lot to be said for facilitating better communication across generations.

The goal in cross-generational communication training is not to study Millennials like aliens from another planet, but rather to improve interpersonal skills among diverse age groups to everyone’s benefit. Once this is embraced as a commitment of a learning organization, people will be more likely to reach out for ideas and input from co-workers from all generations.

What Can You Expect?

When a seasoned, soon-to-retire dealer relations manager suddenly finds herself struggling to connect with a 28-year-old dealer who just took over his father’s business, what cross-generational communications takeaways can she rely on? Here’s a communication model that can help:

  • Check your mindset
  • Acknowledge and appreciate differences
  • Seek to understand and adapt if necessary
  • Align with one another to achieve desired win-win outcomes

A Cornerstone of Leadership

Interpersonal communications is training that combines hard and soft skills. For cross-generational leadership, there is a current fast-start demand that can show immediate results. But the process is also valuable to leadership development. Employees with agile and self-aware communication skills are more likely to advance and perform better in subsequent learning engagements.

Donna Warrick is a communications skills facilitator and the founding partner of Jamesson Solutions, Inc., a Greensboro, NC-based leadership development and talent acquisition firm.



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