One of the most necessary aspects of managing people is effective communication. Whether you're training employees on company processes or addressing coworker conflicts, communication that results in mutual understanding is the key to success.
However, we have all had difficulties in conveying messages to others at some point. There can be many reasons for this -- sometimes it’s a lack of interest from the other party, sometimes both individuals are coming from different reference points.
While you can’t force someone to take an interest in what you have to say, you can consider their perspective and adjust your way of communicating. While people are shaped by various factors such as culture, gender, and religion, there is one aspect we'll focus on in this article: their generation.
The vast majority of the modern American workplace is made up of four generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials (aka Generation Y), and Generation Z.
While people are complex, we can't reduce someone to an attribute like the year they were born, however, understanding their point of reference can help us tailor a communication style most effective to the individual.
It is not a birth year that affects how a person best communicates.; rather, the circumstances -- like the economical, political, and cultural landscape -- that person has lived through during their formative years or when they entered the workforce, that may influence their communication style.
Baby Boomers (1946-1964): Baby Boomers are often thought of as idealistic. Growing up in the time of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passage, and the first moon landing, it is easy to see how this generation is often described as optimistic; they were raised with the belief that they could change the world. Since technology has evolved significantly since their formative years, Baby Boomers may have a learning curve when it comes to more complex technology. Some items to keep in mind include:
- Their preferred method of communication is through face-to-face interaction
- They are comfortable with email so no need to assume this is too high-tech
- They are more receptive to classroom learning
- They have a preference for extrinsic motivation and are driven by external awards
- Scenario: A new Baby Boomer employee starts training for their job. To begin, the best option would be to have them learn about the position and company in a classroom setting where they can take notes as they listen.
Generation X (1965-1980): This generation is commonly associated with having a more skeptical or critical outlook on life when compared to Baby Boomers. Between growing up during the “latchkey kid” era when the divorce rate skyrocketed and more women entered the workforce and being exposed to bleak news topics like the War on Drugs, HIV outbreak, and increasing crime rates, they also tend to be a more independent and self-reliant group. Because of this, Xers can be resourceful, grounded in reality, and have a distaste for heavy-handed bureaucracy. This generation also tends to have a better handle on technology compared to the previous generation. Here are some tips that may help when interacting:
- Utilize direct communication, such as emails and phone calls
- Avoid "beating around the bush" and instead, be honest yet direct
- Avoid micromanaging
- Incorporate technology when possible
- Employ their critical outlook as a voice of reason to find flaws in procedures and business plans
- Provide on-the-job learning and self-directed learning with online on-demand libraries
- Scenario: A new Gen X employee starts training for their job. Giving them access to self-paced online learning followed by on-the-job training with honest feedback would be most beneficial.
Millennials (1981-1996): A major influence on this generation is technology; they grew up at the start of the digital age and with 93% owning a smartphone as of 2019 it is easy to see how they have come to expect technology to be available. There was also the rise of social media, an increased emphasis on diversity and climate change, and the founding of Google putting the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. Because of this, expect a heavy emphasis on technology and more value put into work that makes a difference. Child-rearing trends Millennials were subject to, which included “helicopter parenting”, also put an emphasis on positive reinforcement so there can be a desire for steady feedback and encouragement. Some aspects to keep in mind include:
- They prefer online messaging or email to face-to-face interaction
- Look for opportunities to offer collaborative work
- Look for opportunities to incorporate technology
- Millennials value rewarding work and are more intrinsically motivated
- Communication is a two-way street, and they prefer to make the conversation interactive
- Learning on the job with regular coaching is a preferred method of learning
- Scenario: A new Millennial employee starts training for their job. An orientation that incorporates back and forth dialogue as a group followed by regular feedback once they begin working would be most beneficial.
Generation Z (1997-2012): Generation Z is primarily the children of Generation X, who instilled a sense of independence, the ability to figure things out on their own, and a healthy dose of skepticism. Throw in the fact that this group was born into a technology-heavy world, using these tools comes naturally. With this group being between the ages of 9-25, trends are still developing but early benchmarks show them on track to be the most diverse and well-educated generation yet. Similar to Millennials, they place great importance on corporate social responsibility, climate change, gender equality, and other social issues. They have also grown up exposed to international events thanks to the Internet and can have a more global outlook on life. Here are some tips for working with Generation Z:
- Provide “sandbox” learning environments that allow for experimenting and learning from mistakes
- Gen Z puts a lot of value on being authentic, which draws parallels to the Gen Xers “don’t beat around the bush” attitude
- They value collaborative work that utilizes technology
- Provide opportunities to be part of the learning process rather than a passive listener
- While technology is important, Gen Z places a lot of value on in-person interaction
- Scenario: A new Gen Z employee starts training for their job. In-person orientation that uses simulations and back and forth dialogue discussing what was correct and what could be improved would be most beneficial.
Key takeaway: one method of communication or training may not work for all employees.
To successfully reach all generations effectively, strive to have a mix of in-person interaction, email, instant messaging, phone calls, and other technology while being aware of what methods work best for your employees individually.
Take note of the different ways employees learn, whether that's in the classroom, hands-on training, self-paced online learning, or simulated learning environments. Knowledge of generational differences, when paired with an understanding of your workplace and employees on an individual level, will aid in creating effective communication between management and employees.