Diversity & Inclusion

Bridging Communication Gaps Between Generations

multigenerational businesspeople

Imagine this scenario. A baby boomer in management and his millennial coworker are meeting for her end-of-year performance review. He tells her that he wants to give her a raise for her hard work this year, but she stops him. She instead proposes that she should be rewarded with a more work-from-home options instead. He’s surprised; he’s never imagined that there would be something one of his employees would want more than raise.

How to Bridge the Communication Gap

Ultimately, he feels slighted, and she feels misunderstood – a symptom of intergenerational communication gaps in the workplace. However, this conflict doesn’t only arise between baby boomers and millennials – the two age demographics we hear most about – but can also include the other three major generations – Gen X – and occasionally, the Silent Generation and Gen Z.

two businessmen shake handsThe modern workplace is growing increasingly age diverse. Over a third of the workforce – 35 percent – is comprised of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), while another third are Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980. About 10,000 baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1964) are reaching retirement age every day, so they now only make up about a quarter of the workforce. Long-working Silent Generation (born from 1928 to 1945) and young Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2002) make up the remaining 10 percent.

Each of these generations has slightly different communication expectations than their older or younger colleagues, making for workplace communication gaps.

Changing Expectations

Baby boomers. Have you ever heard a baby boomer say that it’s quicker to pick up the phone? That’s because unlike their younger coworkers, this generation prefers to communicate by phone or in person.

Gen X. Gen X wants to be leaders in the workplace, while also wanting to fit in. They were also the first generation to be large-scale adopters of email, so they prefer to communicate with short, to-the-point missives.

Millennials. Millennials perhaps notoriously changed the communication landscape by preferring text and chatting through apps rather than talking on the phone. Millennials also like emailing or online messaging, rather than speaking in person.

Gen Z. You might not be surprised that some millennials are not digital natives, but all of Gen Z is. These young people grew up hyper-connected, with 65 percent of them reporting that they’d rather talk online than in person. Gen Z may also want to be more entrepreneurial than their older millennial counterparts.

Common Intergenerational Miscommunications

Understanding tone in written communications. With most generations preferring written communications, there can be misinterpretations of tone and punctuation in these documents. For example, baby boomers and Gen X’ers might see the ellipses as a thought trailing off without needing to be finished, while millennials might perceive it as s communication that will be followed up with something else. If nothing else comes, they may be concerned.

Or, take the common period. Older generations may find younger users failing to end their thoughts with periods to be sloppy or unprofessional. On the other hand, younger generations may find the use of periods in chat or text communications rude, uptight or even angry.

Viewing each generation stereotypically. Baby boomers might think of millennials as spoiled, entitled people who never get off their phones. In turn, millennials could perceive baby boomers are workaholics who can’t operate technology. These kinds of negative beliefs don’t help anyone; instead, they strain communication among colleagues who could have been friends.

Communicating professionally in the same way as personally. Older generations might think the only way to communicate with the tech-savvy members of their workplaces is by interfacing with them online. In fact, the best way to connect with a Gen Z’er is in face-to-face communication, perhaps the only way to rise above the noise of their online lives.

Addressing Communication Gaps

Rethink your company culture. Who are you leaving out? All generations have a need for a sense of belonging at their workplaces, so consider if you’re missing opportunities for building a culture of respect.

For instance, creating a more flexible workplace culture can go a long way in creating a more satisfied workforce. Spherexx.com, an advertising agency, has had success in implementing flexible working hours and improved technology. At the same time, a more Internet-connected workforce needs specific guidelines for virtual and face-to-face communication.

job interviewDevelop mentoring relationships. Develop a mentorship program in which more senior employees can nurture and guide their younger coworkers. This not only lets older generations feel like their leadership is valued, but it also gives younger workers the feedback they crave.

Communicate using multiple methods. If you’re only communicating in one style, you’re leaving generations out of your correspondence. Savvy managers will email, use messaging, texting as appropriate, and face-to-face meetings to connect with their workforce. Most people of any generation respond well to hearing an important message more than once, too.

View each person as an individual. While it’s important to understand generational expectations, it’s equally necessary to make sure this knowledge doesn’t turn into ageism. Each person – no matter when they grew up – has their own communication preferences. After all, who doesn’t know a tech-savvy baby boomer and a millennial who still owns a flip phone? Be mindful that generational communication preference are just guidelines for workplaces; they’re not rules.

Communication gaps typically arise when an employee of any generation feels disrespected and dismissed. Implementing these tactics not only can improve intergenerational communication but also builds a community of trust at your workplace.


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