Mind the Gap

Awareness and open communication can resolve on-the-job frictions due to age differences

5 min read

ARTWORK: DAVID PLUNKERT Although differences between the generations in the workplace are often brushed off as harmless or even humorous, the misunderstandings at times lead to conflict, disgruntlement, and worse. Young engineers may clash with older engineers because they feel their seniors are giving them too much supervision and too little flexibility. Managers in their fifties may feel workers in their thirties don't give them due respect or are too quick to question their authority. Over time, misunderstandings and miscommunications can accumulate and grow into real rifts. Ultimately, aggrieved professionals may leave their company altogether.

Several companies are beginning to recognize the lost productivity and poor morale that stem from generational rifts. Intractable as the problem may appear, say workplace experts, the solution is straightforward: awareness, education, and communication. "Generational issues are a subset of communications," says Bob Wendover, director of the Center for Generational Studies (Aurora, Colo.), which does research, sponsors seminars, and consults on generational differences. "If you understand where a person is coming from, it will help you predict their behavior. It will help to know how to communicate with them."

When generations collide Lorrie Tietze has seen her fill of intergenerational miscommunications on the job. Now a managing partner of E and T Associates LLC, a management consulting firm (Castle Rock, Colo.), but once an engineer at Proctor & Gamble, from 1985 to 2001, she recalls a workplace populated by over-50 managers trying, and mostly failing, to manage under-30 engineers. The young engineers were seen as impatient, unwilling to "pay their dues," spoiled, and disrespectful, Tietze says.

"These young engineers had been selected from the top engineering schools because of their excellent academic records and leadership skills." But once hired, Tietze says, they were placed in positions where decisions weren't made without multiple meetings and several layers of management approval. Risk-taking wasn't encouraged, and changes happened very slowly. Meanwhile, she says, they labeled their managers "incompetent, belligerent, and stupid—too stuck in the way things had always been done to see a new, good idea." The unhappier the engineers became, the more the managers clamped down.

"The business started bleeding young engineers, as they left in handfuls to find jobs with smaller companies," Tietze says. One project lost half its younger engineers in 18 months. "Loyalty was reserved for other people, not for the company," she says.

Costs attributed to such defections are huge. "Not only are there direct costs of decreased individual productivity, lower morale, replacement and retraining, and project slowdown, but there are all of the hidden costs," Tietze says. As young engineers huddle around the water cooler griping about their frustration, organizational productivity falls. The company may also find it difficult to recruit on key college campuses, as word gets around about the bad experiences of their employees.

Missed opportunities might be the largest cost of all. "Many older companies are in mature markets, and the same tried-and-true answers aren't working anymore," says Tietze. "They need fresh, sometimes outrageous, ideas to solve problems. The younger engineers can provide these fresh ideas."

Past is prolog Understanding each generation's experience starts with a backward look. According to Generations at Work (Amacom, 2000), by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak, there are basically four age groups in the workplace, each defined by its historical influences: Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Nexters (also known as Millennials). For example, the Veterans' earliest memories and impressions were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II, and they value civic duty, loyalty, and respect for authority.

In contrast, the Baby Boomers were "raised in the era of extreme optimism, opportunity, and progress," the authors write. Although they tend to be self-centered and "spotlight conscious," they are also team-oriented simply because there are so many of them. As for Generation X, they grew up as latch-key kids and therefore have "a survivor mentality and can be summed up by the question, 'Just tell me, is this going to be on the test?'"

Finally, the Nexters are the product of the excessive 1980s and 1990s, whose parents could and did arrange their schedules around their kids' lives. As a result, Nexters are extremely confident.

Naturally, such broad categorizations blur individual differences. But they still hold some truth. Mike Golio, director of Motorola Inc.'s RF Applications Laboratories (Tempe, Ariz.), thinks the core values each generation learned on their first jobs are what frame their perspective. "A microwave engineer who started working 25 years ago almost certainly worked for a design firm where excellence and performance at all costs were valued," says Golio. "Manufacturing was always done on a small scale, marketing was shunned, and the business was easy to understand—there was only one customer."

Now, he says, new microwave engineers are cutting their teeth at commercial wireless firms, where technical excellence plays second fiddle to marketing. The business is wildly competitive, so knowing about marketing and business is highly valuable. When the two generations collide, Golio says, "The older engineer sees the younger engineer as placing style above substance. The younger engineer sees the older as narrow and rigid."

A similar trend in the software industry has been noted by Susan Land, a principal software engineer for Northrop Grumman Information Technology (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.). Since the beginning of her career in the early 1980s, she has seen "software development move from a hero-dependent, ad hoc process toward a more controlled, team-driven, managed process."

"Time after time, I have seen conflict fall along generational lines," Land says. Yet she has also observed that one's resistance or receptiveness to new ideas often relates to one's past experience in similar situations, "regardless of professional maturity," she says. Indeed, resistance to change is nearly universal, she adds, but different age groups respond differently. "The older individuals tend to feel that it is not necessary to fix something that they do not view as broken. The young feel that you are treading on their individual creativity."

Getting past the gap How then does one treat age differences so that they don't create conflict? In the engineering workplace, says Wendover of the generational studies center, Gen Xers like to get the whole picture at the beginning of a project, rather than piecemeal during the job. He therefore advises managers to establish their expectations early on. Doing so, he says, can prevent a serious clash down the road, as when Gen Xers who feel they lack the big picture start to question their managers. "Sometimes the older manager will see that questioning as offensive, when, in reality, the older person wasn't necessarily as clear as he or she should have been."

At Agilent Technologies (Palo Alto, Calif.), age differences are being treated as a diversity issue, much like race, gender, and sexual orientation. According to Lakiba Pittmann, manager of global diversity and inclusion, Agilent's strategy is to raise the awareness of executive-level staff first. Once these "diversity champions" understand how age affects workplace interactions, and, more importantly, why it may cause engineers to quit, they are better equipped to manage and educate their staff.

Tietze's partner at E and T Associates, Robin Elston, agrees that attitudes need to change at the top of the organization. She reminds her clients of the importance of open communication, especially listening. "Often, a younger person's 'bright green hair' or 'inappropriate clothing' is so distracting that older employees don't hear what the younger worker is really saying," she says. "Conversely, younger employees may discount and not listen to what an older employee is saying because they feel that the older employee is too out of touch to have anything of value to add."

Elston contends that the key is for leaders to act as role models by resolving issues in an open and transparent way. This may take training—courses in conflict resolution and effective listening are a good start. Other options include reward systems based on performance and results rather than style.

By making an organization-wide commitment to honest and open communication, senior staff and younger employees alike come to expect that issues will be resolved up front, rather than left to fester. "Age diversity inevitably causes conflicts," Elston says. "It's better to have them out in the open where people can talk to each other about them."

To Probe Further

The Center for Generational Studies' Web site, https://www.gentrends.com, has a suggested reading list covering everything from smarter hiring practices to understanding generational differences.

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