Welles: Talking across generations

Baby boomers should get over their inclination to micromanage a younger generation of feds

"My generation has a work ethic. My new hires have a life ethic.” Treasury Executive Institute Director Bruce Nolan recalled a manager’s comment recently at workshop on the challenge of managing multiple generations. The session featured David Stillman, co-author of the book “When Generations Collide” and co-founder of BridgeWorks, which trains and certifies people on generational issues.

His comments resonated with Nolan and other senior managers in the Treasury and Homeland Security departments.

Stillman defines traditionalists as people born before 1946 and baby boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964. Generation Xers are people born between 1965 and 1981, and he labels those born between 1982 and 2000 millennials.

“While many hope that traditionalists will eventually retire, that boomers will relax and get a life, that Xers will quit challenging the status quo, and that millennials won’t present a whole new set of challenges when they arrive on the scene, the fact is that generational differences are here to stay,” he wrote.

One of the critical differences occurs in communication. Each generation has its own communication style. The older generation, known as the silent generation, provides little feedback on the principle that “no news is good news.” Baby boomers, accustomed to competing in a large post-war generation, prefer formal feedback. Xers and millennials, who have gotten used to instant results, complain that there is not enough communication.

“Leaders have to bump up the pace of communication,” Stillman said at the workshop. “With more communication, workers feel in the loop and included. There is less chance they will feel that things are going on [behind] closed doors, making them feel skeptical.”

Stillman notes that for the older generation, the leadership model is one of top-down communication and directions. On the other hand, the younger generation has been raised to communicate with parents and elders. They expect bottom-up communication. “Stop trying to figure out who’s right or wrong,” he said. “We all need to work on communication.”

He recommends more training for traditionalists on sharing information, giving and receiving feedback, and communicating on a regular basis. There is a place for formality, but baby boomers need to stop focusing so much on policy and procedures, Stillman said. The result is a tendency to micromanage the younger generation.

“Ask yourself, do we need to be so formal?” he said. He suggested finding ways of informal feedback, such as going to lunch or stopping by an employee’s desk to create opportunities to communicate with younger employees.

He advises younger workers to fight to be heard while also understanding that traditionalists didn’t come of age communicating the way they do.

He cautioned members of the youngest generation, who have more experience communicating electronically, that their lack of face-to-face communication skills can be a challenge in the workplace. They may need to be reminded that a simple phone call can avoid a slew of e-mail messages.

Nolan also offered suggestions that could help retain various generations at work. “We should be doing a better job of reinforcing our baby boomers by letting them know the significance of their work,” Nolan said. “Respect the skepticism of Xers as something that can make ideas better.”

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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