Managing Age Diversity
Dealing with a disciplinary issue was not the way I wanted to start my Monday at the museum where I work. But there we all were, sitting in my office, about to discuss a problem that occurred over the weekend. The security supervisor was upset. The security officer was upset. And neither person thought they did anything wrong.
But after both staffers gave me their versions of what happened, I could clearly see the reality of the situation. The problem wasn’t that the supervisor was being overbearing, nor that the officer was being obstinate. Their problem, at its heart, was simply an enormous communication disconnect.
The supervisor was in her early 30s, and the officer was almost 60. Partly because of this generation gap, they did not send and receive information the same way, nor did they have the same social values and manners. Misunderstandings came quickly.
Now came the job of bridging the communication generation gap—teaching each of these security professionals how the other sends and receives information, so that both could be better understood and the disconnect could be repaired.
In this specific situation, the supervisor, from the Millennial generation, had a tendency to be more relaxed in her work environment and in her style of communication. In contrast, the officer, from the Baby Boomer generation, preferred a more formal and traditional work setting and communication style.
In this instance, the conflict occurred when the officer brought up an issue to the supervisor. The officer thought it was an issue critical to the operation of the museum, but the supervisor believed that the officer was going overboard, and she didn’t think the issue needed to be addressed immediately.
Resolving this communication issue took several steps. First, it required a breakdown of the situation and the dynamic at work, so that any misunderstandings could be cleared up. I began by explaining that neither was being intentionally rude to the other, but that they simply had different communication methods.
Then, I became more specific. For each, I detailed the ways in which the other communicates. More importantly, I also described what each might find upsetting in the other’s manner and style of communication. For example, being overly formal in reporting the incident could imply criticism of the younger person’s job performance. And, informally dismissing the incident seemed disrespectful to the older officer. I urged them both to stop and think about what the other way saying before reacting—to respond to the words, not the tone.
The above episode was living-and-breathing testament of a development that demographers and human resource specialists grapple with: The American workplace is becoming more generationally diverse.
Work-life expectancy, or the number of years people spend working, is increasing, experts say, and the number of U.S. workers still employed after age 70 is on the rise. By 2020, the American workplace will host members of five different generations. This age diversity has many ramifications for organizational culture. For managers, a wide-ranging workforce can be a tremendous resource, but it also poses challenges.
One particular challenge comes in the area of communication. It’s become a truism that effective communication in the workplace leads to increased productivity, greater efficiencies, and fewer misunderstandings. But different generations have their own style and preferred methods of communication, so, a key initial step toward better communication across generational lines is to learn about behavioral trends among the different generations and understand their general makeup.
According to Dr. Jill Novak, a management expert and Texas A&M professor, there are six living generations at this time: the Veteran’s Generation; Mature/Silents; Baby Boomers; Generation X; Generation Y, also known as the Millennials; and Generation Z, also known as the Boomlets.
Novak cautions that, as we examine the characteristics of each generation, it is important to remember that everyone is a distinct individual, and not everyone behaves according to a generational framework. But although the qualities and attributes sketched out below do not apply to all, they are common enough to guide the understanding of generational behaviors.
Veteran’s Generation. Born between 1901 and 1926, there are very few members of this generation remaining in the workforce. However, they have made such a lasting mark that their influence and values still remain in some organizations. Many were the children of World War I and the fighters of World War II.
They saved the world, then helped build a new nation. They are assertive, energetic doers, and excellent team players. They have a strong sense of loyalty, and near absolute standards of right and wrong. They appreciate a more formal communication style and can find e-mails and texting to be cumbersome and cold.
Mature/Silents. Born between 1927 and 1945, most of this generation has left or is currently leaving the workforce. They were groomed by their parents to conform to authority during the prosperous postwar period. Women of this generation usually stayed home to raise children; if they did work, it was in specific professions acceptable for females such as teaching and nursing. Many men got a job and kept it for life. They are often disciplined, self-sacrificing, and cautious.
As a general rule, Mature/Silents do not like change. They find face-to-face discussions more appealing but can grasp some of the concepts of electronic communication.
Baby Boomers. One of the largest generations in American history, with 77 million people, the Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. Theirs is the first TV generation and also the first to believe in using credit to buy goods.
Although some came of age in the hippie era of the 1960s, their attitudes often evolved with age, so members of this generation tend to be more positive about authority, hierarchal structure, and tradition. Generally, Boomers are optimistic, driven, and team-oriented.
For the most part, they have a good understanding of communicating through computers and cell phones. The majority also have profiles on one or more social media sites.
As we’ve discussed, Veterans, Mature/Silents, and Baby Boomers often favor communicating in person. Although a one-on-one approach is preferred, they also don’t mind e-mails or texts as long as they are not too informal and do not have abbreviated language that they don’t understand. This is extremely frustrating and considered rude to them.
Generation X. Often thought of as the generation that doesn’t see themselves as a generation, members of Generation X were born between 1965 and 1980. Gen Xers tend to be individualistic and average seven career changes in their lifetime.
Most of them were raised during the transition from the age of writing and paper to the age of digital media, and they often feel misunderstood by other generations.
They tend to commit to self rather than a specific company or career, but they do feel a strong desire to learn, explore, and make contributions. They are often skeptical and unimpressed with authority. Because they were at the transition of technology, they are comfortable with either communicating in person or electronically and are less observant about social formalities.
Millennials. Also known as Generation Y or the 9-11 generation, Millennials were born between 1981 and 2000. They are deemed to be a sharp departure from Generation X. Millennials generally respect authority, and tend to want to schedule everything. They envision the world as a place that operates 24/7; they want everything immediately.
Through commonalities, like participation trophies and graduation ceremonies for every grade, Millennials have been continuously told that they are special and they expect to be treated that way. They do not live to work and prefer a relaxed work environment with lots of accolades. They also feel enormous academic pressure, and they prefer to work in teams.
As a general rule, they prefer to communicate electronically with people they do not know. Some Millennials even prefer electronic communication with people they do know. Texting in acronyms is an accepted language.
Generation Z. Born after 2001, Generation Z is also known as the Boomlets. This is the generation that will be in the workforce next. They are often divided into two groups: tweens (those currently 8-15 years old) and children (elementary students and younger).
The number of births for this generation far outnumber the Baby Boom generation; they will easily be the largest American generation. There are roughly 29 million tweens in the United States, and although they are only 8 to 15, as a group they spend $51 billion annually.
Thus, Boomlets are savvy consumers; they know what they want and how to get it. Roughly 61 percent of Boomlets have televisions in their rooms, and about 4 million already have their own cell phones. They will never know a world without computers or cell phones.
Due to this electronic age, Boomlet children are leaving toys behind at an earlier age. By the time they are 4 or 5, they become less interested in toys and begin playing with cell phones and video games. Most of their communications with others are electronic, and some social commentators question whether they would have discussions in person at all if it weren’t for school.
As previously mentioned, Generations X, Y, and Z would rather communicate electronically. They are comfortable with texting and tweeting; many feel that communicating in person can take too long and can be uncomfortable or awkward. They have known the abbreviated texting and social media language for most, if not all, of their lives, and it is second nature to them.
Novak’s generational thumbnail sketches can help managers understand the common characteristics and underlying values of the different generations. How do these differences play out in the workplace? Some veteran security managers discuss their experiences below and provide best practice guidance for their peers.
Chelsey Lundin, who reports to me as the assistant director of operations in charge of security for the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, works with a generationally diverse staff, so she deals with generations crossing communication boundaries on a regular basis.
“I try to make sure that I am constantly up on the differences in communication styles in an effort to keep issues from happening with our security officers,” she says. “A problem can quickly come up due to either what is seen as an error in communications etiquette, or because a person of one generation simply does not understand what is being said by a person of another generation.”
Lundin offers an example of a workplace episode involving a young security officer who was on duty and tasked with communicating with an older officer, who was off duty, to advise him of a scheduling change.
To accomplish this, the younger on-duty officer sent the other officer an e-mail, but the language of the message was informal, and it included acronyms commonly used in text messages. As a result, the off-duty officer complained to Lundin, asserting that the younger officer’s communication was disrespectful and confusing, which made him frustrated.
Because of her experience and her understanding of generational differences, Lundin realized that she needed to serve as a bridge between the two officers, to help them better understand each other and avoid communication breakdowns in the future.
Lundin did this through patient explanation. She did not simply say to the older officer that the younger officer meant no disrespect in his communication. Instead, she went further and explained the differences in communication preferences, and the underlying values and generational circumstances that each brought to the table.
This helped each of them better understand how to interact in a way that the other would find acceptable and avoid areas of communication that can cause irritation and misunderstandings. In this case, this means that the younger officer will avoid using confusing abbreviations in messages, and the older officer will try to be more accepting of a certain degree of informality.
This type of involved conversation does more than help resolve conflict. Facilitating a deeper understanding of your coworkers makes for a more highly functioning workplace.
Another example is offered by Robert Carotenuto, CPP, PCI, PSP, associate vice president for security at the New York Botanical Gardens. Carotenuto’s security team has a reputation for working well together, but at times generational conflicts can arise, he says.
Carotenuto remembers an episode in which he was contacted by one of his older security officers. The officer complained that he had witnessed another officer, much younger than he, who had what he felt was an inappropriate interaction with a guest.
The older officer explained that, although the younger officer was informative and not discourteous with the guest, he believed that the interaction was too informal and reflected poorly on the facility. He explained that the young officer maintained a casual stance and had his hands in his pockets when talking to the guest.
Carotenuto says he dealt with the issue in several steps. He communicated his appreciation to the older officer regarding efforts made to ensure that staffers are not discourteous to guests. But Carotenuto also noted that maintaining a strictly formal atmosphere was not in the garden’s best interests, because administrators want guests to be able to relax and have a good time at the facility. Further, he explained that the younger officer’s informality did not amount to disrespect.
However, Carotenuto went further, with explanatory goals similar to Lundin’s. He spoke to the two officers together and helped them understand the differences in the ways that generations typically communicate.
He explained the values underlying these differing communication styles, which helped the officers understand that methods and manners different from their own were not necessarily inferior, or wrong. In the end, both officers were able to walk away from the issue with better understandings and a more positive view of future interactions with members of different generations.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Fitzgerald’s maxim applies to the concept of management across generations. Knowledge and familiarity of common generational behaviors can be a valuable tool for a security manager with a diverse workforce.
But this knowledge should not hinder a manager’s ability to learn about and understand each employee as a distinct individual. It is likely that the individual will share some traits with others in their generation, but that will vary from person to person, and it may not be true in all cases.
Indeed, security managers should get to know every employee, whatever their generation, and truly try to understand their professional values. Then, the manager’s goal should be to try to connect with them through that value system, and to keep the employee connected to the organization through the same value system.
With that in mind, here are some best practices for bridging generational differences in the workplace.
Set clear ground rules. Sometimes, members of different generations will have different expectations about appropriate behavior in the workplace.
Dana Brownlee, an organizational expert and trainer for the professional development firm Professionalism Matters, suggests that executive staff should set clear ground rules regarding the culture they want their business to maintain, and what is acceptable and what is not within that culture. This will help reduce misunderstandings and arguments over issues like the correct level of formality in different situations.
Learn motivators. Managers should learn what motivates each individual employee. Generational knowledge can help here; Millennials may need frequent accolades to remain motivated. Again, stereotyping by generation should be avoided, but generational definitions can be helpful as guidelines.
Some may be motivated by enjoyment of the job itself. Some may respond to greater levels of responsibility. Once a manager understands what positively motivates an employee, that knowledge should be used, within reason.
But a manager needs to tread carefully, being cautious not to give praise awkwardly that can come off as insincere or praise someone when it isn’t warranted, which can incite bad behavior from other staff members.
Sometimes, however, an individual’s motivation is hard to discern, even with a strong effort by the manager to understand it. In these cases, a manager should simply ask the employee about it. Most employees will be grateful that the manager cares enough to ask, and so will be happy to share.
Training. Managers and employees should take advantage of training opportunities, such as diversity training, that will help them better understand the different generations that they work with.
Many supervisors also use team building exercises where staff members must interact with each other. This allows them to experience firsthand how each generation communicates effectively. Employees and managers will work more efficiently and get along better with each other if they understand where their coworkers are coming from, and how they can best communicate with them.
In the end, instituting these principles and understanding the attributes of workers of all ages will help managers deal with all the challenges of the workplace, putting them in the position to best leverage its prize resource—the most age-diverse and experience-rich workforce in history.
James “Jes” Stewart, CPP, is the director of operations and human resources for the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada.