Mr. Shaw

Human Resources, Recruitment & Training

The Four Approaches to Multiple Generations

By Haydn Shaw, Senior Consultant, Franklin Covey

"These younger employees are always on their phones so much that they don't know how to make eye contact and carry on a conversation," the Boomer general manager complains to his counterparts at dinner during a quarterly meeting. The rest of table jumps in with their own stories of Millennial employees who don't "get" how to provide customer service.

The most common complaint I hear from frustrated people in all four generations is "They don't get it." "They," of course, means a boss, coworker, or family member from a different generation who the speaker believes is the cause of a problem. And in my experience, "it" usually refers to a sticking point-one of twelve generational tensions where teams get stuck if they handle them poorly or stick together if they handle them well.

"They don't get it" is usually a sign that a sticking point is pulling the team apart. Team members of the same generation begin tossing around stereotypes, making jokes to each other about the "offending" generation. Each generation attempts to maneuver the others into seeing the sticking point "our" way. Older supervisors are horrified. And that's the first mistake-viewing a sticking point as a problem to be solved rather than as an opportunity to be leveraged. The goal becomes to "fix" the offending generation rather than to look for ways to work with them.

Four Generations: The New Reality

Generational friction is inevitable today because we've never had four generations in the workplace. For the first time in history, there are four generations in the workplace and five in the marketplace:

  • Traditionalists (born before 1943),
  • Baby Boomers (born 1944-1965),
  • Gen-Xers (born 1965-1981), and
  • Millennials (born 1982-2003).

This new phenomenon complicates our work and our relationships and so we cope with it in four ways. The approach we take determines the results we get.

The Four Approaches to Multiple Generations

1. Ignore Them

When a generation first hits the workplace, it's easiest to ignore them. Their numbers are small, so they are easy to miss. Even more, since they are a minority, they tend to adapt to the dress, communication styles, and approaches of the other generations. They drive to work in flip-flops and change to shoes in the car. We don't see the flip-flops, so we don't think anything has changed.

But with close to 50 percent of postcollege Millennials already in the workplace, it's hard to ignore them. Once we can no longer ignore a generation, we have three choices.

2. Fix Them

When there are too many to ignore, it's tempting to try to fix them. Some organizations brag to me of their training programs for Millennials. Often, they are trying to "fix" the Millennials. The employers behind the programs believe Millennials are broken and need to be less like themselves and more like the older generations.

Fixing goes both directions. On survey found that over half of all younger-generation employees disparage the abilities of older employees, just as almost 75 percent of older workers disparage the abilities of younger employees. Younger generations complain that older employees are Most of us have had some experience with trying to fix people in family life, and we know how effective it is. Have you ever tried this? "Honey, I just want to take a moment out of my busy day to help you improve."

3. Cut a Deal with Them

Once half a new generation hits the workplace, power begins to tip. The older generations begin cutting a deal with the new generation. We saw the same pattern with the Gen Xers. Ignore, stereotype, and try to fix (we called them "slackers" for a decade), and then finally cut a deal-for example workplaces try to engage rather than command their employees and create greater work life balance.

On a practical level, some generational differences can be solved by cutting a deal. But it is no longer the solution it was with Baby Boomers. When the massive surge of Boomers hit the work world, it was intensely competitive. One company president told me that his senior year in college, he went on thirty job interviews and got two offers. "A third of my graduating class didn't have a job when they graduated. We were the first Baby Boomers in the workplace, so of course we did what they said. They had the jobs, so we wore the tie, relocated, and did what they said."

Every new generation negotiates a deal with their elders. Gen Xers came along and said, "We're not going to relocate." Their Traditionalist and Boomer bosses were shocked. They had relocated seven times in twelve years to move ahead. An early Boomer friend of mine thought he had won the lottery when he got hired by IBM right out of college. People were pounding his back and congratulating him. IBM shipped him off for four five-week training sessions in Atlanta. Twenty weeks of his first year he was gone. "Because IBM was such a family-friendly company," he told me, "they gave us a half hour every Saturday on the company's phone to call home and talk to our families. Neither my wife nor I ever questioned it."

The Xers cut a new deal on relocating. There's an episode of Friends, the ultimate Xer TV show, where Chandler Bing, one of the few characters with a corporate job, falls asleep in a meeting. Somebody asks him to move to the Tulsa office. He wakes up and says yes without knowing what they asked. Later on he realizes what he did. When he tells his girlfriend, Monica, that he's moving to Tulsa, she says go ahead, but she's not moving with him. The whole premise of the episode is that only if he were asleep would an Xer say yes to Tulsa without asking his spouse or partner. Contrast this attitude with the Boomer generation, which was so large and therefore competitive that Boomers would have been jumping for Tulsa like dogs for a piece of bacon.

Thousands of Boomers and Gen Xers will fight adjusting to the more networked and casual style of the Millennials, and in ten years they won't remember their organization did it any other way. Smart organizations know things will shift and do it gradually and with understanding rather than holding on to old habits until generational tensions erupt and they have no choice. They move from cutting a deal to the only approach that takes full advantage of the sticking points.

4. Lead them

The problem with cutting deals is that you can't do it with four generations at once. Even though managers are spending more time than ever in meetings to recraft policies, no matter what they come up with, someone will be upset. You can't cut one deal that engages everyone. Some organizations are experimenting with cutting many deals, but that becomes craziness to manage. And that's the problem-managing it.

So what's left? What's left is to lead.

We can only lead people if we quit trying to change them, and we can't quit trying to change them until we appreciate them, and we can't appreciate them until we understand them. Once we understand others, we realize that, if we had been born where they were born and raised in the situation they were raised in, we would think a lot more like they do. Maybe, just maybe, they're not so weird; maybe the differences have to do with their experiences. Maybe they came from a different world. And then it clicks. That's where we must start no matter what generational differences we face.

The Boomers were the last generation that responded to management; Gen Xers and Millennials respond to leadership.

The younger generations may put up with management in a recession when jobs are scarce, but they respond to leadership.

Sticking Point of Communication

The sticking point of communication has largely revolved around new technology. Certainly Millennials are not the only generation to use technology like smart phones and social media, and the older generations are rapidly adapting and adopting. But web-based, networked technology (Web 2.0) is a defining experience in their lives: half of Millennials say they would give up their sense of smell before their cell phone.

For those of us who have spent most of our careers communicating through memos or e-mail, mobile technology and access to Web 2.0 is nice but not essential. We have trouble understanding how big it is for Millennials and why they are always on their phones. Cisco did a study in 2011 of 2,200 college students and young professionals worldwide to see what they wanted from their employers. They found the following:

  • 56 percent of college students globally would turn down a job offer from an organization that banned access to social media (or they would ignore the policy).
  • Two-thirds said they would ask about social media usage policies during job interviews.
  • 81 percent want to choose their own devices or to be allowed to use their own personal devices as well as the ones the company gives them. (1)

If your organization is going to succeed with Millennials, you're going to have to get familiar with the tools that they can't live without and learn to speak their language.

But if you are going to help them serve your older customers, you'll have to help them understand why they must put down their phone and learn to speak the language of those generations. You can't do that with a cell phone usage policy, you could only do it by leading your team through the five-step process for getting unstuck from generational sticking points. It won't do any good to lecture or even train them, but you can lead them through this five step process until they understand how and when to speak the language of another generation:

  1. Acknowledge - Talk about generational differences.
  2. Appreciate - Focus on the "why" not the "what" and the common needs.
  3. Flex - Agree on how to accommodate different approaches.
  4. Leverage - Maximize the strengths of the generations.
  5. Resolve - Determine which option will yield the best results (when flexing isn't enough).

1. Acknowledge - Talk about generational differences

Communication is one of the easier sticking points to get out on the table because people already speak openly about new technology and about the differences in the way the generations communicate-although it gets tricky when one generation insists that another communicate their way and with their rules of etiquette.

Differences with communication etiquette gets people even more upset. For example, a large retailing client told me it baffles their managers when Millennials text rather than call when they miss work. But younger Xers or Millennials think it's efficient rather than abrupt or impersonal. In families, Millennials may see nothing wrong with texting during a family dinner, whereas their parents view it as rude. These are all questions of etiquette.

Whether etiquette differences or one generation believing communication would be much more effective if you did it their way, you have to get these communication tensions out on the table and acknowledge them so you can, well, communicate about them.

2. Appreciate - Focus on the "why" not the "what" and the common needs

You will never help your Millennials carry on a conversation unless you stop focusing on what is different about the generations and start talking about why we see things differently.

Each generation needs to get the information necessary to do their jobs and to feel like a valued part of the team. But the generations' native communication languages are different, heavily impacted by the technology they used while growing up and starting their careers. Understanding why the generations feel more at home with certain forms of communication will help you appreciate rather than aggravate each other.

  • Traditionalists grew up with print media. Because they often didn't have access to other sources of information, they trusted experts telling them the facts. Letters, memos, meetings, and eventually the telephone kept their organizations going. Because many of the early Traditionalists never owned a typewriter, schools taught the Palmer Method of cursive handwriting. Traditionalists did their courting by letter or in person. They often complain that Xers and especially Millennials don't know how to sit still and carry on a conversation with eye contact.

  • Baby Boomers grew up in the era of television, with entertainers compelling rather than experts telling. The communication was still one-way, but it was visual, story-based, and in shorter, more concrete pieces. Boomers did their dating by phone. They often complain that their children and grandchildren don't call them.

  • Generation Xers grew up with digital communication, the World Wide Web, and e-mail. Gen Xers did their dating by phone (and later by cell phones) and instant messaging. They wonder why Traditionalists and Boomers won't just send it in an e-mail.

  • Millennials grew up with interactive communication. News feeds, blogs, retail sites, and social networking all invite their comments and have created a much more interactive communication experience. We want to be part of the discussion. We expect to participate." Unlike Boomers, they did not grow up in a world of one-way communication.

Older generations who were raised on face-to-face or phone conversations tell me they worry that text messaging is so impersonal and that Millennials will not be able to sustain long-term relationships. Older generations have to remember that people complained that the telephone would ruin relationships as it replaced letter writing.

Millennials complain when their grandparents and parents leave them a voicemail and expect them to call back. They also mutter that their parents and grandparents complain that they're always texting or on their phone.

3. Flex - Agree on how to accommodate different approaches

You determine how much you should flex based on business necessities and generational preferences. A business necessity is anything that will make you lose your foot, customer, money, or funding. Your generational preferences are the forms of communication that make you most comfortable.

No one ever debates that with customers it's a business necessity to flex your communication preferences to match theirs. If your customers are Traditionalists, then you'd better pick up the phone or go meet them in person rather than using e-mail or social media. You'd better have a good handshake, make eye contact, and be able to small talk before you jump into business. If your guests are safety conscious Gen Xers, they may not want your people calling them by name because it feels "creepy" to them that people they don't know are passing their name around in the hotel database. But if your customers or potential employees are Millennials, then you'd better learn their tools and use humor (MTV discovered in their 2011 survey of Millennials that "smart and funny is the new rock 'n' roll" (2)

Bottom line: the older generations will need to flex with more technology, and sometimes younger generations need to go "old school."

4. Leverage - Maximize the strengths of the generations

The point is, every generation has its communication and technology preferences, and they all have strengths and weaknesses. They all make more sense in some situations than others. That's why getting your team talking about this sticking point will leverage the collective wisdom far more effectively by helping all generations understand when to switch communication approaches.

5. Resolve - Determine which option will yield the best results (when flexing isn't enough)

For the sticking point of communication, understanding why generations view communication differently and flexing to accommodate generational differences helps us make noticeable progress in getting the generations unstuck. Policies that don't make sense to people are ignored. Even more, training programs that try to fix people are doomed from the beginning.

If we are going to train older generations to communicate with our Millennials guests and employees, or help Millennials put down their phones and carry on an old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, we must first stop criticizing a generation for being a product of their era and start helping them understand why other generations are like people from a different country. Only then will any generation be interested in learning to speak another generation's language.


(1) ----
(2) Advertising Age, Media-Savvy Gen Y Finds Smart and Funny Is 'New Rock 'n' Roll' Transparency, Authenticity and Relevance Key When Marketing to These Quiet Agents of Change By Thomas Pardee Published: October 11, 2010

Taken (with small adaptations for hospitality) from Chapters 2 and 8 of 'Sticking Points' by Haydn Shaw. Copyright © 2013 by Haydn Shaw. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

A master presenter with FranklinCovey, Haydn Shaw has delivered hundreds of convention keynotes or small, off-site workshops. Known for taking groups from hilarity to deep reflection, he combines rich content with use-tomorrow tools. His work makes an impact because he does his homework, customizing each speech, workshop or consultation so that they drive results. He has worked with more than 1,000 business, not-for-profit, and governmental organizations. He speaks and consults in excess of 160 days each year to clients who consistently invite him back. As a result, Mr. Shaw connects with virtually any group in any industry, and brings practical and inspiring examples from the boardroom and the front line. Mr. Shaw can be contacted at 815-469-2617 or Extended Bio... retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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