We are all trying to keep up with the shifting dynamics of work and technology. But with as many as five generations represented in the workplace, how each one of us views that change can vary wildly. It’s unprecedented diversity that has its challenges, and intergenerational disconnect is a common issue.
“We are each, every one of us, interpreting these changes in different ways according to our own individual contexts,” Sophie Wade, workforce innovator and author, told the Work Without Limits™ Executive Summit in Chicago. “Some of us are excited or curious or confused or resisting, and these different interpretations are what are causing some of these misunderstandings.”
There is significant opportunity for companies that learn to combine decades of rich experience with fresh insights and modern solutions. Here’s a look at why perspective and empathy will be critical for organizations to succeed.
1. Challenge assumptions
How we interact with others is shaped not just by what we know but what we think we know. Current research into organizational psychology considers not just the stereotypes that apply to each generation but also the meta-stereotypes—what each group believes other generations think about them.
That research shows that our assumptions are often wrong.
In a cross-generational survey, researchers from Rice University found that the stories we tell ourselves about other people’s perceptions are generally more negative than their actual opinions. But those beliefs can influence not just how we approach work but also how we respond to others.
“Sometimes people react with a sense of challenge (‘Oh yeah? I’ll show them!’) and sometimes they report more threat (‘Oh no, what if I live up to this negative expectation?’),” the researchers wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review. “Both threats and challenges led to conflict at work (things like arguing or not getting along with colleagues) and avoidance behaviors (things like keeping to oneself and avoiding interacting with others).”
To help head off this cross-generational disconnect, the researchers offer several suggestions:
- Foster open communication and acknowledge the stereotypes and meta-stereotypes that exist. Paired with efforts to encourage perspective, cooperation, and sharing, the improved awareness can help people recognize when biases start creeping in.
- Emphasize shared goals to help purposefully build a stronger sense of “We.”
- Discuss what each individual needs because, at the end of the day, stereotypes are often wrong: needs and experiences often aren’t dictated by age and one person’s needs can shift for any number of reasons.
2. Foster empathy
To work together more effectively, workers of all ages need to reframe how they think about things. And one often-overlooked key to doing that is to encourage empathy.
“Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel what the other person is going through,” she said. “It’s the lack of empathy in the workplace that is causing, or at least exacerbating, some of our intergenerational issues.”
She put two scenarios to the business leaders in the room. First, she recounted the experience of an entrepreneur:
Example 1: An interview with a new hire
A Gen X entrepreneur interviewed a millennial who turned the tables and started asking questions and challenging the company’s business model: “How convinced are you that this is going to work?” And “Why should I work at this company?” This happened to him not once, but twice!
To older generations, this could be seen as arrogant or disrespectful. But to younger workers, Wade explained that these questions are rooted in something deeply personal, connected with their values, and very practical, connected with their futures.
Millennials and Gen Z aren’t the first or only generations to look for purpose at work—but they are the first who are willing to move on if they don’t find it, especially if they feel those values don’t support a healthy workplace. The millennial’s questions are also trying to assess, on a practical level, the entrepreneur’s conviction, values, and approach to his employees. Without alignment on these, Wade said, working at the company would unlikely be fulfilling or long-term—both of which, in this case, are desired outcomes.
“CEOs invariably say the constituency that’s truly driving their newfound social activism is their employees,” Alan Murray, president and CEO of Fortune, explained in an editorial about the role of corporations. “Millennials, in particular, may be driving the change more than anyone—and more important, they’re choosing to work at companies that are driving change too.”
Without these changes—such as relating to culture, technology, skills, or flexibility—Wade said millennials are aware the company’s competitive position could soon be threatened, and their future along with it.
Example 2: A manager meets with a relatively recent hire
The second example is a situation Wade said she’s heard countless complaints about over the last three years: a recent hire within his first year on the job goes to his boss to ask for a raise.
To older generations, this could come across as premature or entitled. But context matters. Wade explained some of the realities younger workers face in today’s marketplace: “Automation has eliminated the basic elements of many entry-level jobs, so recent graduates are actually tasked with advanced work from day one, coming in as much as three to four years ahead of previous generations in many cases,” she said. And financial security is a significant concern: according to a survey by Charles Schwab, only 38 percent of millennials feel financially secure and two-thirds say they’re living paycheck to paycheck.
Wade added that younger workers are all too aware they can no longer expect traditional, linear, vertical career advancement. But they want to know if they have a future with an employer by pushing to find out about their next career milestone—a raise or promotion is the logical next step—that might reward hard work or represent the start of a new challenge. They recognize that progress has been accelerated so promotions could reasonably happen faster.
In the past, these opportunities often came from the top down. However, author and career coach Julie Jansen told the Wall Street Journal that competing and asking for these advancements now comes naturally: “This generation has been given permission by their parents and teachers and other authority figures to just go for it, go for the gold, ask for whatever you want.”
Open questions encourage better communication
As with clearing out assumptions, asking open questions is a good place to start. In recapping these two scenarios, Wade noted that by fostering more open communication, we can figure out what’s really going on and conversations can have a very different outcome.
“We have an opportunity to really understand and tap into all the insights and experiences and perspectives of our whole workforce,” she said. “We can lead and manage in engaged, inclusive, integrated, thriving, multigenerational companies and teams. Together with the empathetic mindsets and approaches, we can figure it out.”