Everyone has witnessed the culture wars. People in our society seem polarized over values and social issues. While I believe those battles are real, there’s a deeper issue at play that we have ignored. You might call it, “generational wars.” It’s happening every day in our workplaces.
For years, our Chief Operations Officer hosted weekly leadership team meetings and did not allow staff to bring their portable devices or laptops. She felt it was distracting to everyone and felt the user might be working on outside projects. Today, Matt hosts our meetings and encourages leaders to bring their technology. He knows it’s their best way to capture decisions and share action steps. In our case, it’s the difference between a Baby Boomer and a Millennial.
How Generations Shape Culture
Twentieth century philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said the idea of “generations” is the “most important concept in history.” Each new generation brings changes to the way things get done, but often seasoned veterans are dragged into the future kicking and screaming. Why? Because those folks have found proven methods to succeed. New methods are, well…unproven. Further, when someone introduces a new method, it’s easy to make assumptions and feel threatened.
Sometimes our assumptions can even offend us.
I remember taking my family to Paris, France on a vacation. After finishing a meal, I wondered why our waiter didn’t bring the check, allowing us to pay and get on our way. Our server walked by our table several times but never once gave us the check. I finally had to wave him down to get the bill. A bit irritated, I walked out assuming our waiter just didn’t like Americans. I was reminded later this is a common misunderstanding. In Europe, it’s considered rude to bring the bill before the guests have savored their food and conversation and then requested it. In the U.S., a guest from France might feel offended in one of our restaurants when the server brings the food, then only minutes later, brings the bill. This guest may assume the waiter is rushing them off. Truth be told, Americans are “time oriented” and most places around the world are “experience oriented.” Such differences require “cultural intelligence.”
The same is true for different generations.
Just as knowing where a person grew up often helps you understand their perspective, knowing when they grew up can do the same. In his book, Wisdom@Work, Chip Conley explains today’s “unprecedented age diversity in the workplace can be confusing as we may have drastically different value systems and work systems at play. But it can be a wellspring of opportunity that the world has never experienced.” When we understand the values and systems of different generations, we can capitalize on them, instead of judging and rejecting them.
When we don’t take the time to do this work, we can fall prey to common assumptions:
- Builders are all antiquated.
- Baby Boomers are all stubborn.
- Gen Xers are all skeptical.
- Millennials are all narcissistic.
- Generation Zers are all fragile.
We know these stereotypes aren’t true, but if we only take a superficial look at a generation or only listen to certain descriptions of them, we can build walls instead of bridges to them. In his book, Originals, sociologist Adam Grant describes how we should perceive those who are younger and older than we are. He calls them “young geniuses and old masters.” This is how we prevent “ageism” from dividing teams. These young geniuses and old masters are everywhere.
What if we approached those from different generations with high expectations and teachable spirits? I believe each generation brings complementary strengths with them to a team:
- Builders often bring sage wisdom and fierce loyalty.
- Baby Boomers often bring stories and experience.
- Generation X often brings pragmatic and contrarian insights.
- Millennials often bring confidence and idealism.
- Generation Z often brings a “hacker mindset” and entrepreneurial spirit.
Andrew and I meet every other week. I am thirty years older than he is and we both have so much to teach each other. The good news is, we each come to that meeting prepared to learn. For a portion of this regular meeting, he’s asking me questions, then for another portion, we shift gears, and I am in a learning posture. Since we both are emotionally secure, we don’t focus on our position but our disposition. It happens seamlessly. How do we do it? We decided long ago that we both would:
- Swallow our ego.
- Remain hungry to grow.
- Put the mission first.
- Add value to each other.
Imagine that? A Baby Boomer and a Millennial enjoying a growth experience that changes hands at the drop of a hat. His expertise compliments mine, and mine his.
Wondering how else you can make meaningful connections among generations?
It helps when you know how to speak their language – how they’re thinking – what they value. Tim Elmore is the country’s leading expert in the emerging generation, and his book A New Kind of Diversity contains everything you need to know about connecting with – and influencing – any generation. Pick up a copy here today.