So you work in a cube next to someone of a different generation and they do something that makes no sense to you.
- Wear ear buds all day 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 make eye contact because they are looking at their phone while talking to you.
- Don't know how to use the collaboration software and try to send everything by email.
- Come in ten minutes late carrying a Starbucks.
You've hit a generational sticking point: Those predictable places where the four generations in the workplace see things differently. Complaining about those differences creates tension and frustration and leads to miscommunication and stereotyping. Team members of the same generation make jokes to one another about the 'offending' generation, such as 'those entitled Millennials' or 'those arrogant Baby Boomers.' Even worse, each attempts to manipulate and maneuver other generations into seeing the sticking point their way. Resentments build, people spend more time talking about someone than talking to them, and new ideas stop flowing. Productivity is stunted and results decrease and work isn't as fun. When we don't honestly explore and understand generational differences, we react to the small things, ignore the big things, and propose the wrong things.
Although sticking points are inevitable, the same generational conflicts that get teams stuck can cause teams to stick together because they push us to understand and appreciate how other generations see the world. After consulting with hundreds of Fortune 100 and 500 organizations and working with thousands of people in my work with Franklin Covey, I've noticed that generational stereotypes do the most damage because they freeze our thinking and destroy our intergenerational relationships.
Here are four steps that will help you get along better with your multigenerational coworkers, protect you from stereotyping, keep you from staying stuck in generational sticking points, and most important, maintain your sanity:
1. Acknowledge Your Frustration
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 quiet until you do a little digging to find out if what is irritating you is truly a generational pattern or merely an "urban legend" that's been passed around until everyone believes it. Such as, 'older employees can't learn new technology' or 'Millennials don't want to work in an office.'
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 another colleague from the same generation about the topic. Or, you could be courageous and ask the person directly. But that's step two.
2. Appreciate the Differences
Another generation may seem strange, but they are different for a reason. Nothing explodes generational urban legends faster than finding 'that' reason. So look for the 'why' instead of the 'what.'
Focusing on the 'why' creates appreciation; focusing on the 'what' prolongs the irritation and feeds stereotypes. So stop complaining about what another generation does and start asking some of them why they do it that way and then to listen without criticism: You would have kept quiet until you were asked, so why don't the younger engineers feel they're being disrespectful when they suggest changes to the project management process six months after joining the company? Why do your Boomer colleagues talk over their cubicles instead of sending an email?
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 understanding, which leads to appreciation. That will get the relationship unstuck.
3. Flex Your Approach
When we appreciate why people see things differently, we quit taking personally what they never meant to be personal and can flex our approach to meet them halfway.
The head of nursing for one metropolitan hospital watched her Boomer executive team members come alive in meetings and her Gen Xers start working on their iPads. So she began to research generational differences and got her team talking about them. They began to understand that their Boomers liked to connect face to face and their Xers preferred email. So they shortened their meetings, she met with her Boomers one on one, and the Xers put away their iPads because they understood that it felt disrespectful to their older peers. Anyone, manager or not, can do the same thing by using their newly acquired appreciation of other generations to get beyond stereotypes and to figure out ways to flex to meet other generations half way.
4. Leverage Those Differences
Because each generation sees the same issues in different ways, each has something to contribute that can improve the way you work. "What are they seeing that you don't see? What could they teach you if you stopped criticizing them and started listening to them? How could you leverage the generational differences into strengths?" Maybe you could shake up your meeting agenda as long as the work gets done. Maybe the start time isn't sacred, if customer service isn't impacted. And maybe the faster you ask a new generation for ideas on how to improve the project management process; the faster you can get this new product to market.
Nothing messes up intergenerational relationships faster than stereotypes around the sticking points. So don't get stuck in them. Use these four steps to break through your generational stereotypes and start to enjoy working with your colleagues from all generations.