Cross-generational office culture: Clash or crockpot?

"We'd all do well to remember that a company is better served when people have different opinions and perspectives."

Ever been in a meeting with a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer, a Millennial and a Gen Zer?

You are likely to have lots of different ways of looking at a problem accompanied by universal disagreement to its solution. With so many people retiring later, working longer and starting internships sooner, it isn’t uncommon to have four generations working side by side. It can be a clash of cultures or a crockpot of creativity; but, it’s all in how you choose to see and integrate the differences.

Everyone’s perspective is a partial reflection of their age. If you are a Baby Boomer born between 1946 and 1964, or a Gen Xer (born 1965-1980), you likely grew up in a non-digital world. If you are a Millennial (born 1981-1996) or a Gen Zer (born after 1997), you can’t imagine anything analog (except that cool, vinyl collection of yours ;-). Every generation brings certain perspectives, experiences, skills and sense of self to every business interaction. They also bring their biases, ideals and limiting views. That can create a lot of generational tension.

But we’d all do well to remember that a company is better served when people have different opinions and perspectives. Healthy debate and varying styles are crucial for a business to thrive. We hear about the importance of diversity everywhere. Shouldn’t that conversation also include generational diversity?

Considering you very likely have multiple generations working in your business, here are a few things you might want keep in mind:

Your younger or older counterparts have different ideas – but that doesn’t mean they are bad ideas.

When we work with people who have opposing mindsets to how we see the world, we often find ways to discount what they have to say or discredit their approach. When we dismiss ideas because of our own inclinations, we’re blinding ourselves to innovative, experienced, insightful or at least reasonable perspectives. And we do that at our own peril. You don’t have to agree with your senior or junior coworker, but you would do well to listen to them. They might be saying something you need to hear.

Each generation has its own approach.

If you’re a Boomer or a Gen Xer, you might not feel like you need a ton of reinforcement. You might have the "no-news-is-good-news" mindset and feel perfectly comfortable not hearing from upper management until you get your annual review.

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have earned the autonomy to go long stretches without a critique. But Millennials and Gen Zers often need more feedback. They also get unfairly maligned by the older generations for needing "constant hand holding" and "wanting a trophy," as the sneer goes. It isn’t as if Millennials and Gen Zers are wrong to ask how they’re doing. No matter what our age, we all improve faster when we receive feedback. That isn’t a feeling – it’s a fact.

Conversely, Millennials and Gen Zers shouldn’t discount the Baby Boomers or Gen Xers when they suggest being cautious and thorough. They have more work experience and likely have seen the negative impact of substandard work. However, when the same coworker says, "This is the way we’ve always done it," that is not the right response. Sometimes you need to do it differently – the old way is not always the best way.

In other words, we can always learn from each other. Sometimes doing what we’ve always done is the right move – why waste resources reinventing the wheel when something has proven to be effective? And sometimes, doing what we’ve always done is the mistake.

Embrace healthy tension.

Trying to "make nice" can stifle creativity and healthy or productive tension. Productive tension is actually a good thing. You want to encourage different perspectives, opinions and ideas. If you establish a workplace culture of respect and understanding – one where everyone is working toward the same goals – you'll see people naturally overcome differences and learn more from each other.

For instance, think of how people communicate. Boomers and Xers like email – it allows thoroughness. The Millennials generally prefer less email and more texting – they like speed. Gen Z often doesn’t even use email. Let’s face it, there are times when texting is faster, more efficient and easier in the business world. But there are times when email works better – it provides more room to create a tone and convey important facts. How do we take the best practices from each of these groups to create a more efficient communication stream? Instead of thinking "what I like best" think "what’s the best medium for what I am trying to say?" Ask your team to ask themselves this question, too.

Curiosity is crucial.

If a business is going to be successful with three or even four generations, everybody needs to be genuinely interested about how their older and younger counterparts think. As a younger employee, you might ask your older colleagues why they’re doing what they do. But when you’re older, you should be tapping into the agile mindset of your junior teammates and respect what they’re bringing to the conversation. There’s no need to fear the generation gap. We should embrace it.

Creativity comes from everywhere, after all; and if you’re going to get the very best out of people, you’re going to want to retain the smartest strategies from the past while keeping a close eye on the future. Your colleagues will always perform better if they feel respected, appreciated and heard. That is a human truth, regardless of what your birth certificate says. Keep listening, asking and learning.

Nancy Beesley is the president and a founding partner of HCB Health.

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