So you are working in a cube next to someone of a different generation and they do something that makes no sense to you: Maybe he or she…
- wear ear buds all day long and can’t hear anything anyone says so they don’t know what’s going on.
- talk over their cube all the time so you have to wear ear buds to concentrate.
- don’t know how to use the collaboration software and try to send everything by email
- come in ten minutes late carrying a Starbucks
- don’t make eye contact because they are looking at their phone while talking to you.
- stare if you check Facebook for two minutes
You’ve hit a generational sticking point; those places where the four generations in the workplace answer the same questions in different ways. These different answers create tensions and frustrations that lead to miscommunications and ultimately stereotypes. Team members of the same generation begin tossing around these stereotypes, making jokes to each other about the “offending” generation. Worse, each generation attempts to maneuver the others into seeing the sticking point their own way.
Generational sticking points could be helpful rather than the debilitating because they can push us to understand and appreciate how other generations see the world.
But after working with thousands of people, I’ve noticed that generational stereotypes are the one thing that does the most damage because they lock up our thinking and keep intergenerational relationships stuck.
These four steps will protect you from stereotyping and keep you from staying stuck in generational sticking points:
Acknowledge to yourself that you don’t like what the person next to you is doing and that you don’t understand why it makes sense to them. Then keep your mouth shut until you do a little digging to find out if what irritating you is truly a generational pattern or merely an “urban legend” that’s been passed around until everyone believes it. Like the story of alligators in the sewers of New York City. There are two easy ways to dig. Grab an up-to-date book or jump on the Internet and find some reliable sources that will help you understand if it’s just the person next to you or if most people in that generation see things the way your colleague does. Or you could ask. But that’s step two.
It’s possible that the individual you work next to is crazy and trying to understand them would be a waste of time. But an entire generation isn’t crazy; they are different for a reason.
Nothing explodes generational urban legends faster than finding that reason. So start looking for the “why” instead of the “what”. Nothing feeds generational stereotypes more than talking about the what – the differences themselves. That’s exactly what these common statements do: “I don’t know what’s wrong with these young employees, did you see that email suggesting three changes to our project management process. They think they’re entitled to start criticizing without having to prove themselves.” Or “I don’t know how many more of these Baby Boomers meetings I can take. They won’t let us use our laptops while each person reports out what they’ve accomplished last week. How are we supposed to stay awake.” Wham. By focusing on the “whats” that are different, you just ran headlong into a generational sticking point that is quickly hardening into an urban legend. You have little hope of getting unstuck unless you start focusing on the “whys” now.
Focusing on the “whys” creates appreciation; focusing on the “whats” prolongs the irritation. The easiest way to understand why another generation thinks the way they do is to ask people why they do it that way and then to listen without criticism. So why don’t the younger engineers feel they’re being disrespectful suggesting changes to the project management process six months after joining the company when you would’ve kept your mouth shut until you were asked? Why do so many meetings still prohibit laptops and insist on a verbal report out? It’s obvious to everyone that its boring and not efficient, so what burned your older managers in the past that makes them think this is the only way to ensure critical information gets communicated?
Of course you won’t agree with everything they say, nor will you want to adopt everything they do, but you’ll move beyond stereotypes into appreciation and get the relationship unstuck. When we appreciate why people see things differently we quit taking personally what they never met personally.
We stop stereotypes in their tracks by acknowledging that we don’t understand why something irritating to us makes sense to a person of another generation and keeping our mouth shut until we figure out the whys behind the whats. When we quit taking personally what they don’t mean personally, we get unstuck and can flex our approach to meet them halfway. An executive nursing team I cover in my Sticking Points book shortened their meetings because the Gen Xers found them tedious; and the Gen Xers put away their iPads because their Boomer colleagues found them disrespectful.
Flexing for differences helps us get around the inevitable generational sticking points; but misses half their benefits. Because they answer the same questions differently, each generation has something to contribute that will make your work better and more efficient. What are they seeing that you don’t see? What could they teach you if you stopped criticizing them? How could you leverage the generational differences into strengths? Maybe we could shake up our meetings as long as we get the work done. Maybe the start time isn’t sacred, if they get the work done. And maybe the faster we ask a new generation for ideas on how to improve our project management process, the faster we get this new product market.
Nothing ruins intergenerational relationships faster than stereotypes. But sticking points can be the places where the differences among generations help teams stick together rather than come apart.