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Communicating across generations

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For the first time in American history, we have four generations in the work force simultaneously. Each one communicates and processes information differently. Whether you lead a team with younger co-workers or are positioning your company to work with multi-generational clients, understanding these differences in values, priorities, and approach to work-life balance is essential for your organization to be agile, remain relevant and retain younger employees and clients.

The following are five generalizations that the baby boomer generation may make, along with possible strategies and expectations employees of this generation could employ when speaking with younger professionals and clients from Generation X, Y and Millennials. These groups represent the younger workers born after the baby boomers.

1. Communicate values
Contrary to popular belief, younger generations aren't any more shallow than previous generations. In fact, they're some of the most values-driven members of our society. They crave meaning in their work, just like you do. It's not enough to explain the what and how of a young professional's work. You must show them the why by communicating the meaning behind it. You'll be surprised at just how responsive they'll be.

2. Work isn't everything
The best and worst thing about younger generations is they don't value hard work the way boomers do. They value smart work. They multitask better, identify and prioritize better and are able to get a lot more done a lot quicker. It's not because they're smarter — it's just how they were raised. The Internet, cell phones, social media — even when it comes to having fun there's always a lot to get done in a young professional's life.

While these qualities make them efficient, energetic and insightful, it also has led to dips in the quality of what they produce. Young professionals see the means of getting work done “good” instead of “perfect” as a tradeoff for balancing a family and spending time with their kids. Thus the time it would take to be focused on the details of work are instead reallocated to their family life. Maybe not the best for business, but it's the best for them.

The last piece to remember is that with the kind of technology we have at our fingertips, we can change how work is done. You can accommodate your younger employees by allowing them to work remotely. Keeping strict office hours on some days while allowing to work home on others can be a huge boon to a younger professional whose focus lies more on home life than yours. Young professionals thrive on trust. Give a little; you'll get a lot in return.

Your job is to help them achieve that balance they crave so much. Encourage vacations. Allow them to leave early. Let them spend time with their kids. However, be sure to inspect their work carefully and make sure that what's being done is in fact getting done the right way. Help them find balance.

3. Don't be defensive if you're being misinterpreted
If you take nothing else away from this article remember this: younger generations have been raised with more methods of communication than any previous generation. They're able to communicate on multiple fronts and as such, they don't have a lot of time to be wasting on ambiguity. It's important not to leave things to assumptions. Communicate as clearly and concisely as possible. While younger generations have a reputation for being “soft,” they're really not. They like direct, frank and honest communication.

4. Try to learn about each other's perspectives
Younger generations work hard and play hard. They're able to get a lot done in a short period of time and value work-life balance. Older generations appreciate nuance. They work hard and play when it suits their work schedule. They're detail-oriented and career-focused. There's nothing wrong with either approach. Sharing those perspectives is important as there's much to be learned from your experience and their exuberance and passion. You won't agree on everything and that's OK — but having a basis for understanding makes bridging gaps a significantly easier process.

Just because your younger employees don't like showing up to work until 10 a.m. doesn't mean they don't care or can't do a good job. Just because they spend less time working and more time playing doesn't mean things aren't getting done. Step away from the conclusions and look for ways to help complement their weaknesses, rather than just complaining about them.

5. Define a goal
If you're working with younger employees, be sure to define the future from their perspective. Ask questions like: What vision do you have for your own future? What are you concerns? What would you like to know, but feel uncomfortable to ask?

Whatever it is, sit down and talk. With the younger generation, collaboration is everything. Even when they're not the ones with the final say, they like to be in the loop. Keep them present and make decisions together about the future. By enhancing your understanding of this generational difference in approaches to business, family and money, you will ensure that you can maintain a competitive edge as a leader, retaining the younger generation as employees and potential clients.

Denise P. Federer, Ph.D. is founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group. She has 27 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at: [email protected]


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