Breaking Through Generational Communication Barriers in the Workplace
by Aden Andrus • September 24, 2020
If there’s one truth that online marketing has drilled into me, it’s this: You are not your audience. No matter how much you have in common with someone, you’re still two different people. You have different life experiences, upbringings, outlooks, priorities and preferences.
From a marketing perspective, this is a simple, but often-overlooked principle that undermines many businesses. Something that works for you may not work for your prospective customers. If you don’t approach things with your customers in mind, you’re going to have a hard time convincing them to buy.
That same principle, however, has far broader applications.
Anytime you communicate with someone, you come to the table with all kinds of preconceptions. These preconceptions are based on where you grew up, how you were raised, what your family and friends value, and yes, even when you were born.
The same goes for whoever you are communicating with. They have their own history and culture and it affects how they respond to what you say and do. If you don’t keep that in mind, it’s easy to make assumptions from your personal perspective that don’t apply to the person you’re talking to.
And, when that happens, communication starts to break down. Whether it’s age, race, gender, politics, sports or something else, when people forget that you are not your audience, they miscommunicate and what could have been a productive conversation becomes mired in frustration, confusion or mixed messages.
That’s why, in this article, we’re going to talk about ways to handle communicating with audiences of all types. For the sake of this article, we’re going to focus on generational differences in the workplace, but the principles we are going to discuss are fairly universal. Let’s get started.
Taking a Step Back
We hear about discrimination and harassment in the workplace due to gender, race and sexual orientation all of the time, but those aren’t the only issues that can lead to miscommunication and outright problematic behavior.
Age differences are another challenge that can cause real problems in the workplace. So far, age isn’t quite as hot of a topic as race or gender, which is why it’s a good framework for discussing these kinds of issues. Most people have a strong stance on sexism and racism, but ageism? Not so much.
See what I did there? When people have strong emotions about a topic, they pick a side and a stance that fuels those emotions and have a hard time being open to other viewpoints.
So, instead of picking a topic for discussing bias and preconceptions in the workplace that evokes an immediate response in people (like sexism in the workplace), we’re going to focus on something most people don’t have a strong opinion about: ageism.
And that’s the fundamental concept behind remembering that “you are not your audience”. You take a step back, think about your audience and try to figure out how to discuss things in a way that will work for them.
Will you always get it right? No. Maybe you’ve been discriminated against in the workplace because of your age and you have very strong feelings about it. But, based on what I know about who reads the Disruptive blog, this is my best guess at how to discuss this topic without triggering an immediate emotional response in my readers.
The point is, you may not always be able to get inside the head of the people you’re talking to, but if you take the time to imagine life from the perspective of whoever you’re talking to, you stand a much better chance of communicating effectively.
How Age Affects the Workplace
So, with all of that in mind, let’s talk about how differences in age are linked to different opinions, skills, values, attitudes and beliefs. As with any difference, differences in age have an effect on how people perceive the world.
For example, I have a group of friends who are several years younger than me. We have a lot in common, but there are a variety of things in our childhood that were very different.
Why? Well, when I was 9, they were 4 years old. They weren’t in public school or old enough to get into the things that were popular when I was that age. Things like…the original Pokemon game on Gameboy.
And that’s with a gap of just a few years. In the workplace, you can be on a team with someone the age of your parents and someone the age of your grandparents.
Over the past 100 years, the world has changed dramatically. As a result, we see major generational gaps in life experiences, values and priorities. Life for your parents looked very different from how it looked for you. That’s not to say that one generation was better than another. They’re just different.
Getting to Know Your Audience
Since the goal of any good communication is to think about things from your audience’s perspective, let’s talk about some general trends among different generations of people.
There are a lot of different “generations” out there, like the “Silent Generation” (1928-1945), “Baby Boomers” (1946-1964), “Generation X” (1965-1980), “Millennials” (1981-1996) and “Generation Z” (1997-2012), but in the workplace, you’ll primarily encounter Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials, so let’s take a minute to discuss some of the broad differences between these groups.
Baby Boomers grew up in the sixties to seventies. From a work perspective, most Baby Boomers in the workforce were raised to be “company men” (or women). To them, work is all about digging in, paying your dues and working your way up the ladder.
For Baby Boomers, experience and tenure demand respect. They value consistency and predictability—particularly because a lot of them are facing retirement.
Since this is an online marketing blog, it’s worth mentioning that technology as we discuss it in the modern sense was far more limited when most Baby Boomers were growing up, so they tend to prefer more direct forms of communication.
Gen Xers grew up in the eighties to nineties. There was a lot of change during this time period, so Gen Xers tend to be pretty resilient, independent and adaptable.
In general, Gen Xers take great pride in their independence and accomplishments. They’re less of “Company Men” who live to work and are more focused on work-life balance. That being said, most of them have families, so stability and financial security are very important to them.
As a general rule, Gen Xers toe the line between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. They have many of the same values as the Baby Boomers, but they tend to be more adaptable and willing to learn like Millennials.
Millennials have been a hot topic for a while now, and for good reason. Millennials grew up amongst a period of massive technological upheaval that redefined how the world works.
For many Millennials, technology is how they understand and communicate with the world. Many grew up with cellphones in their pockets and computers in their homes. Social media plays a huge role in their lives.
Thanks to all of this, Millennials tend to view work as a choice, rather than a duty. That’s not to say that Millennials can’t be hard workers, but they’re far less likely to remain loyal to a job than their predecessors—especially if that job doesn’t match their current interests or passions.
Using What You Know
Taking all of these trends into account, let’s say you’re a Millennial in charge of a sales team. It’s a pretty cutting-edge company and with the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve decided to take advantage of modern technology and have everyone work from home.
Things seem to be working out well for most of your team, but one of your reps—a Gen Xer—has been having a hard time. His numbers have taken a dive and he just isn’t getting the results you would have expected.
At first glance, you might be inclined to assume that he’s taking advantage of working at home and hasn’t really been doing his job like he did when he was in the office.
After all, you’ve noticed that other members of your team haven’t been jumping on leads nearly as aggressively, have been turning in their reports late and generally have had a hard time staying motivated. Heck, it’s been a struggle for you to feel motivated to wear pants, and you’re in charge!
Now, it’s completely possible that laziness is the problem, but if you immediately jump to that conclusion and call in the slacker and lay into him, you may do more harm than good.
What if he’s used to making in-person sales and now he’s being forced to do it over the phone? It’s a new skill set and it’s going to take him time to adapt.
If you get all over his case for being lazy when he’s actually working harder than anyone else on the team, it’s going to demoralize him, hurt his sense of independence and threaten his sense of financial stability—all heavy morale hits for someone who is already probably feeling overwhelmed.
On the other hand, if you take a step back and think about this employee and his situation, you may realize that he always turns in his reports on time and shows up to every virtual meeting professionally dressed. He also knows his leads inside and out, so it’s clear he’s not slacking off—especially since you know how important it is to him to provide for his family.
With that perspective in mind, you’re much more likely to approach the conversation in an effective way. Rather than trying to light a fire under him, you might start by recognizing how hard he’s working and then asking what challenges he’s been running into. This opens the door for a much healthier and more productive conversation.
Managing Your Assumptions
Of course, the example above is grossly oversimplified…which tends to happen when you view people as stereotypes, rather than people. While it’s certainly helpful to understand broad trends in behavior, people are still individuals and treating them as stereotypes can be just as problematic as assuming that they view things the same way you do.
Life demands that we make assumptions all of the time. We assume that our paycheck will go through. We assume that when we turn on our car, the engine will run. We assume that when we buy fast food, it won’t be contaminated with E. Coli.
Sometimes, those assumptions don’t pan out, but most of the time they do, which is why assumptions free up our brains to focus on other things. That way, we don’t have to constantly live in fear of the unknown.
That’s great when it comes to your commute, but when you’re dealing with people and relationships, you have to be aware of what your assumptions are and where they come from.
Owning Your Assumptions
For example, if you’re interviewing job candidates and you assume that a Baby Boomer will struggle with your technology, that assumption may or may not be correct. Your brain may take the age of the person you’re talking to and group them in with other people of the same type without you even realizing it. As a result, you could pass over a prime candidate without even realizing it.
This is why it’s so important to be aware of your own assumptions. Because we have no way to truly get inside someone else’s head, we tend to assume that everyone is reacting to things and making decisions in the same ways and for the same reasons that we are. As we’ve already pointed out, though, that simply isn’t true.
Whether it’s age, gender, race or simple life experience, assuming that you are your audience is one of the easiest ways to create conflict in the workplace.
You might love video games, but if a company-wide Super Smash event probably won’t appeal to your Baby Boomer (or even Gen Xer) employees. Hold enough tournaments and you’re going to cause some hurt and frustration.
You Are Not Your Audience
Jargon, topics of conversation, technology, social media, when and how long meetings are held, company events and all kinds of other aspects of the workplace are easy to take for granted. They’re just a part of work, right? But if you aren’t thinking about your audience, it can be easy to create conflict simply by giving in to your own assumption.
In the end, this is often why so many HR topics fall on deaf ears. Most people only think about things from their own perspective, and if you’re not having a hard time, it’s easy to assume that no one else is, either.
When you fail to recognize and challenge your own assumptions, it’s hard to understand where other people are coming from. It feels like they’re just blowing things out of proportion…which just makes them feel like you don’t care about them or their feelings. That’s an easy recipe for workplace conflict.
Now, will managing your assumptions and thinking about things from your audience’s perspective solve every workplace conflict? Of course not! Conflict is a two-way street and if other people come to the table with their own assumptions, there’s only so much that they can do.
But, as any good negotiator will tell you, resolving—and better yet, preventing—conflict starts by looking outside yourself. Whether it’s ageism, sexism or just a difference in politics, when you take the time to think about who your audience is and try to figure out where they are coming from, things typically work out for the best.
How do you handle conflict? (especially in the workplace?). Do you agree with this assessment? What are some challenges you’ve seen with communication in the workplace? Leave your thoughts in the comments.