One of my favorite new TV shows is The Crazy Ones, the CBS comedy starring Robin Williams, who works with his “daughter” Sarah Michelle Gellar at the Chicago advertising agency, Lewis, Roberts & Roberts.
What really grabs me is the multigenerational interplay requiring boomer Williams, 62, to team up with Gen X’ers Gellar, 36, and Hamish Linklater, 37, and Millennials James Wolk and Amanda Setton, both 28. It’s a hoot.
(MORE: What NOT to Say to Around Younger Colleagues at Work)
If you’re a boomer with an office job, you undoubtedly work alongside Gen X’ers and Millennials (Gen Ys), too. But things might not be so funny there.
Work Tensions Among the Generations
In fact, as a recent AP story — “A push for harmony among workers, young and old” — noted, employers across the country are increasingly offering generational awareness training programs to help cool tensions among cohorts and let each group better understand the others.
“There’s a real need for this kind of training," says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family. “When I give these workshops," she told me, "I often hear boomers say ‘I can’t understand this younger generation in the workplace.’”
Dan Schawbel, the Boston-based founder and managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm, isn’t surprised. “The different generations have different views of how work should get done and how to communicate,” he says. “By bridging these differences, everyone is more productive and can sustain strong business relationships.”
(MORE: What My Young Colleagues Have Taught Me)
Turning From a Skeptic to an Advocate
I was a little skeptical about these Kumbaya sessions until I interviewed a few trainers who run them and other generational workplace experts.
I’ve since come around to thinking that if your employer offers an optional generational training session, you ought to sign up.
For one thing, you'll better “understand the other generations’ core values,” says Juergen Deutzer, a trainer for the ScrippsHealth nonprofit health system. Also, learning how to work better with Gen X and Gen Y could wind up putting more money in your pocket.
HR executive Scott Redfearn, whose consulting firm Protiviti began providing this training to its employees last year, explained it to me this way: “Increasingly, what you are responsible for at work is not your own effort, but the collective output of a team," he says. "If you can get everybody on the team to give their best effort and be highly energized, regardless of their generation, that can improve the results. So in an environment where bonuses are based on the results of the team, bonuses should be strengthened.” (Translation: you could get a bigger one.)
Even if you’re not eligible for bonuses, you could be more likely to keep your job or get a promotion if you play well with others, especially if you manage younger staffers. Conversely, if you don't get along you could be axed or locked in your position.
(MORE: How to Get Along With Younger Co-Workers)
Why This Training Boom Now?
Wondering why employers are offering multigenerational training now but didn’t when boomers began their careers?
“We (boomers) were this generation that changed the world in our young adult years — through civil rights and women’s rights — but when we came into the workplace we totally conformed. It’s as though we morphed into our parents,” says Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership. “So there was no need for generational training, because we acted like the older generation.”
How Gen X, Gen Y and Boomers See Work
That’s anything but the case for today’s younger generations, who approach work very differently than boomers.
Boomers are goal oriented, Gen X’ers are task oriented and Millennials are multi-task oriented, says Deutzer.
“Boomers sometimes call Gen X’ers ‘Gen L’ for Lazy,” he adds. “They’re not lazy; they just have a very different attitude toward work.”
A Hunger for Feedback
One major generational difference at work between boomers and Millennials: Unlike boomers, Millennials are hungry for feedback. That means their older bosses need to squeeze in time to provide it.
“Millennials seek more feedback than the older generations are naturally comfortable providing,” says Redfearn. “This is one of the biggest tensions that exists in the workplace.”
Gen Y’ers especially want to hear from boomers what it takes to get ahead at their employer, says Rikleen, whose book, You Raised Us. Now Work With Us!, comes out in March.
Redfearn says Protiviti’s managers are now trying to bake feedback into the way they work, so they’re not spending incremental time doing it. Conversely, the firm’s younger employees are now getting trained on how to solicit the feedback they want so the burden isn’t entirely on the older generation.
Millennials are also quick to quit if they don’t find their work meaningful or engaging. Turnover among junior employees is much higher than it has been historically.
“Most of us who are older look back at our first few years in the business world as a time of paying our dues — and out of that would come great opportunities,” says Redfearn. “Today, if junior people don’t have interesting work right away and consistently or don’t feel they’re making a difference, they feel like maybe they should try their luck at another organization.”
Once Protiviti figured that out, the firm began working harder “to make sure that we were delivering a great work experience right from the get-go,” says Redfearn.
Older managers there now also make a point of telling younger team members why their work is valuable to customers. “Helping everyone understand the value they’re creating has improved the energy level on projects and improved the innovation around solutions we’re providing to clients, so we are seeing it pay off,” Redfearn notes.
Advice for Working with Gen X and Gen Y
After speaking with these generational experts, I think we boomers need to be more accepting of the ways our Gen X and Gen Y colleagues work, one of the chief lessons of the training programs.
“When we started offering the training, boomers were annoyed how constantly the Millennials were on their cell phones, tweeting and texting,” says Deutzer. “At the end of the course, the boomers say, ‘Now I understand that this is just part of their life and I accept that.”
Rikleen suggests that if you need to nurture Gen Y and Gen X workers, “tap into their specific talents to help develop them for leadership positions.” For example, you could encourage them to raise the social media profile of your employer and mentor senior colleagues about technology.
And if you’re weeding through job applications, cut the younger generation some slack if they’ve switched jobs more often than you have.
“If I, as a boomer, get a resumé from someone who has had one job for a year and half and another one for a year and a half, I look at it as they can’t keep a job. An X’er, on the other hand, will look at that resumé and say, ‘This is a go-getter,’” says J.C. Patrick, a Houston marketing and fundraising consultant who provides generational training to nonprofits.
What Worries One Expert
Rikleen doesn’t worry that the generational differences will lead to open warfare and sabotage at the office. She’s concerned about something more insidious.
“I worry about the senior generation writing off Millennials because they misunderstand that generation’s behavior,” she says. “Then, if the younger people aren’t promoted, they might leave out of frustration and the employer won’t have its next generation of leaders.”
And if your firm loses its young blood, going to work there might become less interesting for you.
“It would be a very boring organization if we didn’t have generational diversity,” says Deutzer.
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