I’ll bet you’ve heard that statement in the workplace – an environment where we have the potential of four to five generations working side-by-side. Questions such as: how do you manage millennials? Why are baby boomers such control-freaks? Who are the Gen-Xers? Why do they email everything instead of getting up and talking to me? And my favorite – why can’t these people just get along?
When it comes to generational issues in the workplace, I posit that it really isn’t a generational issue – it’s a communication and understanding issue. I was first introduced to this idea more than a decade ago when the notion of generational differences was just starting to emerge as a relevant workplace topic. The concept that was introduced is called “Generational Repetition”.
Generational Repetition is the notion that each generation believes four characteristics regarding the next generation. Are you ready for them? As you read them, ask yourself if you ever heard someone a generation older say this about you? And ask yourself if you’ve said this about someone in a younger generation (yet)?
Did you chuckle? I did, because there is so much truth and so much fallacy in the notion. The truth of the matter is, we probably do think that of the following generation(s). The fallacy is that the assumptions aren’t accurate. I would take this step further and suggest these assumptions aren’t just true of generations, they are often true of people period.
Many of us tend to see through our own lens, assume others see things, believe things and want things the same way we do. That projection of our ideas and ideals onto others is not new. What is newer is that our society is less homogeneous. We encounter people with different ideas of success and ‘hard work’ more often than we used to – and some of those are people from another generation.
If you struggle with “generational issues” at work, I think one of the best ways to improve the situation is to ask questions.
The first question I recommend is to be asked of yourself – What assumptions do I have that may be impacting the situation?
Ironically, the most vivid example of a ‘generational issue’ that I encountered was when I was the “kid” in the workplace. I had a knack then (as I still do today) for asking questions – such as why do we do it that way? Have we ever thought of doing it this way?
I found that I was having a lot of conflict with a supervisor centered around my questions. Prompted by the questions of a friend and mentor, I took a step back from the situation and tried to see how my questions might be interpreted.
Suddenly I realized, while I was asking for explanation to learn and understand what had been done before; what the supervisor heard was someone questioning her intelligence, criticizing a process or system she created. I “assumed” she knew my question was curiosity not critique.
With this newfound knowledge, I started approaching my supervisor in this way. “I don’t have the history, can you explain to me why we do it this way?” The reaction to my question was distinctly different. Our relationship and communication improved dramatically and before long I didn’t need to preface the question with a statement of intent, we both got over our assumptions.
If you don’t know what assumptions you have or how they may impact a situation, ask someone to help you. It’s hard to see our own blind spots. Look back at those generational repetition concepts and ask yourself if any of those are assumptions? Or you could be really brave and take the courageous step to ask the person you are interacting with.
“It seems like we have a conflict and I don’t understand the root cause. Can we talk about it so I can see what I’ve been missing?”
Said with a sincere sense of curiosity, a question like this can open a tremendous dialogue and opportunity for both parties to better understand each other. It doesn’t mean that you’ll walk away sharing the same belief about the situation, but you may walk away with information and perspective you didn’t have before.
How much better generations (or people in general) may get along if we all asked more questions and made fewer assumptions?