Many workplace interactions are challenged by misinterpretations and judgments. Intergenerational communications at cross-purposes are at the core of many misunderstandings and negative exchanges leading to suboptimal results, higher turnover, and even stalled progress.
To attain the performance levels that will enable your business to adapt and succeed in a digitally-enabled, fast-evolving marketplace, the key is to share context and support inclusive communication and effective collaboration among your workforce.
(Mis)understanding context can result in one person describing another as “entitled” instead of “enthusiastic” or “enlightened,” or as being “lazy” rather than seeking “work-life balance”, or being “close-minded” versus “traditionally-trained”.
Unhelpful labels can be bandied around the water-cooler and back-channeled exacerbating matters. Moreover, misaligned context can result in both parties having an unproductive discussion, as they each feel disrespected while also undervaluing the other’s expertise or experience.
Career-related experiences can have a profound impact on personal context and subsequent reactions. Consider first the careers of Baby Boomers (1946-64) and the first half of Generation-X (1965-1979) who entered the workforce to stable full-time positions and linear, continuous compounding careers. Their jobs were life-long with few deviations along the way, ending in a gold watch if they were lucky and retirement at 65.
Work was almost exclusively defined by its fixed location and time. Managers gave instructions and solicited little input in return. Little involvement was desired or required of employees outside of getting their allocated tasks accomplished. Hours could be long and flexibility limited, but employment was also predictable and reasonably dependable. Employees were used to a constrained environment and work which was suffered through in return for the reliable paychecks.
Fast forward more than two decades, during which time there has been much change in family dynamics and economics, and job security has decreased significantly. A starkly different slate of starting-job opportunities and career “trajectories” have greeted the younger group of workers since the Great Recession. Full-time jobs were in short supply for many years, much less ones that could offer any long-term financial stability.
This cadre of workers was presented with the actuality of more diversified and fragmented careers in a constantly evolving workplace. They have been faced with accepting the more fluid and less financially-stable circumstances as their fundamental employment reality while they build their early careers. Each person’s self-directed and self-managed multiple careers are now anticipated to comprise a variety of full-time, part-time and independent contractor roles, with a focus on income, not jobs.
This younger worker group was also deeply affected by the way older generations were treated by employers despite long years of dedicated service. Under these circumstances, it is understandable for employee loyalty and commitment to an organization to have been impacted. Someone might consequently ask for a promotion quickly to sound out—and even stimulate—their employer’s interest in their future there and commitment to realization of their potential.
Furthermore, with economic and employment uncertainty and instability there are fewer prospective material rewards to accumulate. Many newcomers to the workforce therefore have developed a different approach to work in terms of how it defines their future and determines their motivation. They are looking for meaning and purpose in the work itself. At the same time, a prospective hire may believe that new possibilities of deeper and trust-based employer-employee relationships may better safeguard their future prospects and therefore wish to connect with a company through shared values.
Gaps of comprehension do exist among your employees – perhaps more than before. Certainly, they seem more noticeable and have greater effect in a faster-moving marketplace with more rapid feedback loops and decision-cycles. A first productive step is deliberately creating a common context at the beginning of a project or new situation by sharing assumptions.
Disparities of knowledge or in relevant experience may then be revealed in an impartial and dispassionate way. Miscommunications can then be reduced through a purposeful approach to sharing assumptions. Proactive questioning can help in discovering any discrepancies in understanding and achieving alignment—over-communicating at the outset until each party is well understood by the other(s).
Processes do not need to be dictated. Instead, sharing and refining parameters together can best engage all parties involved, allowing them to contribute and incorporate their personal perspectives, creating common ground that values and integrates all parties’ perspectives. The resulting outcome is integrated and agreed on.
Cross-generational interactions and cooperation—including formal and informal mentoring pairs—can help bridge experience gaps. These may often involve technology-related matters and those derived from expertise built over time. So, useful bidirectional sharing of knowledge can be very fruitful, as can encouraging group activities and exchanges to build cross-discipline and intra/inter-team relationships. Improved connections also help smooth over—or at least allow for some slack—if context-based misunderstandings still arise!
Diverse combinations of employees will also boost ability to envision viable competitive strategies for your company’s digital transformation. Consider purposefully selecting teams that include those with years of experience together with those with deep understanding of technology.
Assemble nonadjacent disciplines, crossing functions and departments, as well as being broadly inclusive of gender, race, age, and background. The Science of Inclusion research shows that diverse and inclusive teams are more creative and make better decisions. Utilizing the ideas of those least familiar with company routines in combination with input from those who have weathered previous tumultuous times of change will support development of a strong plan for the future of your company.
The key is to dismantle hindrances and look into and beyond tone, manner, style, and history to understand and communicate with context. Laments and labels, whomever they are said about or to, are not conducive to progress. We are each and all individuals, first and foremost, and then part of other identifying groups and communities that embrace generation, race, gender, and many other dimensions.
An open and inclusive approach is perhaps the most important factor moving forward, allowing your company to embrace new ideas and ways of working; run a more agile and responsive business; and enable clear communication and productive collaboration across and among your workforce.
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