Labeling generations is all the rage—Traditionalists (born before 1946), Boomers (1946-1964), Gen X’ers (1965-1979), Millennials (1980-2000) and—get this—Generation Z, the post-Millennial group who will be joining the ranks of working professionals within the next few years. Personifying and categorizing each generation has become quite popular. Perhaps it is an attempt to make some sense of the melting pot of personalities currently at work within most organizations. The point is, it’s tough to scroll through news headlines, pick up a paper or swipe through Flipboard without reading about the impact of multiple generations currently intertwined in the workplace. And maybe because it’s easy to blame “the new guy” or perhaps, because as of this year the Millennials will officially surpass the Baby Boomers as our nation’s largest living generation, “those Millennials” are taking a lot of flak for the shifting landscape of workplace engagement, culture and team alignment. But I don’t agree.

This isn’t just about Millennials—yes, they’re new, younger, maybe dress a little different, talk a little different and utilize their phones a little different, but that doesn’t mean they should take the brunt of blame for being disruptive. Truth be told, everyone is contributing to the disruption of multi-generational workforces; some by personal bias, some by digging in heels, still others by intentionally stereotyping and subsequently out-casting. Fortunately, just like with any form of organizational disruption, leaders need to look at new ways of doing business to turn disruption on its head.

Rather than minimize or dismiss dissension in their teams due to generational differences—innovative leaders will lean in to the issue by recognizing key differences, focusing on similarities and maximizing everyone’s contributions based on complementary attitudes and behaviors. And as in all things great in leadership, it starts with communication.

It Starts With Communication

Communication is the great equalizer in the drive to bring harmony and alignment to teams—particularly when the team is made up of 20-somethings on up to 60-somethings and beyond. Establishing an environment of healthy communication based on transparency and trust will serve to set a new tone for the team. One where everyone realizes that it isn’t about “those millennials,” or any one generation, for that matter. In fact, when team members stop assuming and start talking, they typically shift their thinking from, “how does this person work against me?” to “how can I work with this person?” While today’s blog won’t solve every facet of potential communication breakdown in a multi-generational team, a few starting points in facilitating open communication for your team include:

  • Establish everyone’s preferred communication channel so your team has a working “manual.” Who likes emails, texts, or instant messaging? Who would rather talk in person or pick up the phone? “Suzie” isn’t trying to annoy you by stopping by your office to chat and “Joe” isn’t being a hermit by sending an email when his cube is right next to yours. Each person’s behaviors are reflected in their own values. Chances are Suzie would like you to stop by her office to chat and Joe would prefer you send him an email—an individualized approach to how your team communicates will work best in a multi-generational situation.
  • Be open about thoughts around formal vs. informal communication style. What’s the appropriate tone for external communications vs. internal? When is it okay to abbreviate words and when is it imperative to be professional? Set clear ground rules for what’s expected and what each style actually looks and sounds like.
  • Encourage your team to shift from assuming to asking. When it comes to understanding each other’s differences, get people talking about their “story.” What do they value? What motivates them? What would they like to learn from others and what are they willing to teach one another? Once your team opens up about who they are as people and not just how they “show up” at work, each member will be better equipped to meet each other halfway in the name of efficiency, relationship and effectiveness.
  • Most importantly, lead by example. You have the power to establish a new norm in how your team looks at and thinks about each other, but it starts with you and it requires (everyone’s favorite word) vulnerability. Openness begets openness, so set your intention around sharing your own stories, assumptions, fears and objectives with the underlying motive to get everyone talking.

In the end, it’s about everyone accepting personal responsibility and embracing the potential in each other. There is no right or wrong, no one better generation over another… just different and certainly room to embrace those differences and maximize their combined affect.

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