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Generations in the Workplace

How to Get Along

For years, the baby boomers represented the focus of much of society – from television programming, to advertisers’ focus to social media commentary from journalists and academics. But, today there is a new generation that is rapidly gaining attention and focus from these groups. Generation Y – born between 1977 and 1995 – are a close second to baby boomers in volume; about 76 million compared to 77 million boomers. And, in between, is Generation X. Each of these generations has slightly different attributes, interest and “quirks.”

Understanding the differences in the generations in terms of communication and work/life needs can help to overcome the potential for conflict and misunderstanding say generational experts like Diane Spiegel, CEO of The End Result, a corporate training and development firm.

Conflict Between Generations is Natural

Potential conflicts with Gen Y can begin as soon as they enter the workplace says Spiegel. “When those millennial-aged staffers come to the workplace they want to have the trust and respect of those they work with and people who support them. But here’s something really different – baby boomers believe you earn that trust and that you have to ‘put in your time.’ The millennials don’t see it like that – they feel fully prepared to be on-par with whatever their supervisor is doing, even though the experience base is much different,” says Spiegel.

Understanding Expectations of Different Generations

Spiegel points to the difference in the way this generation was raised as a primary driver for their expectations. “These kids have grown up as trophy kids,” she says. They’ve received unconditional support and encouragement from parents, teachers and coaches and they come to the workplace with the expectation that this support and positive feedback will continue. “Their expectation is that they come to work and their supervisor is going to pick up where the parents and the coaches and the teachers left off,” says Spiegel. But then they bump up against the reality of having to earn the trust and positive support that they have taken for granted throughout most of their lives.

And, because of the nurturing environment that most millennials grew up in they come to the workplace expecting “lots and lots of feedback,” says Spiegel.

Here’s another issue – boundaries. Millennials aren’t used to compartmentalizing their lives as their older colleagues are and this can lead to issues. For millennials who have always had access to technology – who never lived in a world without cell phones – the concept of leaving home at home and only doing work at work can be foreign. “When most of us began our careers it was clear that when you were on the clock you were working,” says Spiegel. “That doesn’t happen as much now – they’ll text, they’ll check messages, they’re on their cell phones – so there has to be a lot of clarification about where the boundaries are, when Internet use is appropriate, when they can access Facebook, when they can use cell phones and when they can’t.”

The Importance of Effective Communication

The solution? Communication. Much of the conflict that can arise from inter-generational differences grows out of unclear expectations and misunderstandings. It is critical for managers and HR leaders to be explicit in terms of setting expectations and boundaries and communicating those boundaries to their employees. Supervisors and managers should also be specific, she says, about how performance is being measured. “Once millennials understand the expectations, they will become loyal and highly motivated employees,” says Spiegel.

It can also be helpful to have open discussions about different expectations and perspectives. None of these expectations are wrong or right – none are necessarily better than others. There are opportunities for discussions to help new employees understand the expectations that their managers and the workplace has of them and to help managers understand what they value and why.

While it is easy to assume that this emerging generation – the millennials – is just “different” (and certainly they, like the generations before them, are), for boomers, millennials – and that oft-forgotten generation in between, Gen Y, getting along requires what getting along has always required – clear expectations, open communication and the willingness to listen to better understand.

Copyright © 2010 Linda Pophal

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