in the workplace

Intergenerational Communications and the Workplace


What’s getting lost in translation within your organization or between your organization and others? Effective communication is the backbone of a high-performance organization; statistics reported by Pumble indicate that more than three-quarters of employees and executives attribute workplace failures to a lack of effective communications. Similarly, when teams communicate effectively, productivity could increase by as much as 25%. Onsite, hybrid and remote working options place new demands on everyday communications. Add to that, five distinct generations are now present and active in the workforce and need to collaborate.

Take a close look at your own organization. Are your habits of communication building bridges for collaboration and trust or creating barriers that fragment your company culture and undermine mutual respect?

A message is more than words.

Communication begins with a message, with raw information that needs to be conveyed clearly and without ambiguity to one or more individuals so that action can be taken. A sender and a receiver of the message must participate, each with their own context or frame of reference. Instructions on the basics of communications are plentiful. Deloitte, for example, offers insights for communications that include defining the audience, preparing the critical message and its objectives, and determining the most effective form or “package” for the message.

Words must be chosen with care, so the message is suited to its purpose and matches the needed level of formality. Is the communication strictly internal or is it directed to those outside the organization? If the message goes to customers, clients, or others outside the organization, does it accurately reflect the style and values of your organization as you wish to be represented?

Context and mode make a difference.

The mode of communication—how the message is conveyed and its effect on the receiver—taps into the human side of emotions and feelings. This is where trust is built or lost, where feelings can be hurt, or understanding can be strengthened. The mode of delivery affects the fundamental sense of whether or not someone feels heard and respected and therefore a valid member of the team. This is the realm of different communication styles, where misunderstanding can so easily surface.

Sent but not received.

Perhaps some of these situations will sound familiar. One person complains that their phone messages to another team member are never returned—or the answers they get are in the form of brief texts instead. Another person can’t understand why they receive so many emails, or bulky email threads, when an instant message or text could have been used instead. Technology has blessed us, or some might say, cursed us, with an abundance of methods for communicating in the workplace— in addition to the most basic method of face-to-face conversations. A recent PwC survey points out some of the key factors that allow employees to feel confident in the workplace, including the sense of being heard and understood. Flexibility is now the norm. For some, that represents freedom, for others, stress and insecurity at the loss of a standardized, predictable structure.

Shared history influences interpretation.

Some of the differences in preferred communication methods—face-to-face, phone, email, text, instant message systems—break down along generational lines. While we don’t want to resort to stereotypes, each of the five generations present in the current workforce has been shaped by world events outside their control and technologies that arose in their lifetimes. Just as the Great Depression, World War II, and the advent of television shaped the Traditionalist generation, the lives of Millennials have been influenced by 9/11 and the internet. The lives of Generation Z digital natives, now recently entering the workforce, have been shaped by the Great Recession and lifelong easy access to technology.

Advancements in technology redefine speed and what is considered effective. Like the fax machine that once was the epitome of rapid communication, panelists on this discussion from NYU point out that Gen Z tends to look at email the way boomers view snail mail.

Unintentionally, each generation brings their communications preferences and prejudices into the workplace. Every generation values effectiveness and strives for efficiency, but they select different means to achieve those results and often don’t recognize the reasons why others use alternative modes of communication.

Speaking the right language to be heard.

As if the variety of communication options isn’t enough to make work life complicated, each person has their own preferred learning style. Add this variable, and the mix grows even more complex. Multiple variations exist, but the typical breakdown includes Visual, Aural/Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic learners. That means, for example, that some people—regardless of their generation— prefer to take in information verbally (think phone, or in-person meetings) and others may strongly prefer graphical or written materials.

And don’t forget the business and professional objectives of communication. These objectives range from maximum speed and efficiency to the need for accurate, permanent records. Within a team, instant message conversations with responses consisting of emojis may be the most expedient way to reach a quick decision; in dealing with formal contracts, or interacting with clients of different generations, communications may require more formality along with speed.

Evaluating methods and moving toward more effective communication.

Given the dynamics that drive everyday communications, how does your organization stack up? Are you building a cohesive culture with effective communications that get the message across while supporting trust and respect between people?

Awareness of the various factors is the first step. Rumbling frustrations, attitude and morale problems often point to communications problems. Resolution begins with identifying communication style preferences: simply ask people how they prefer to interact.

Evaluate the methods and forms of communication that are needed and then determine the baseline standards that are appropriate. Some individuals may need support in skills that allow them to communicate more effectively in person or in a written format while others may need additional training or support with learning to make full and fluid use of new technology. Opening the discussion in itself acknowledges the feelings and perceptions of people and sets the stage for developing an effective blended solution.

As you navigate these challenges, don’t hesitate to call on a business consultant for help. RoundTable Consulting can help you pinpoint the areas that need to be addressed and work with you to develop a plan that will allow your team to bridge the gap and move forward with respect, understanding, and effectiveness.

Nancy Owsianowski is the Founder of RoundTable Consulting where her relational,  insightful approach transforms teams, leaders, and organizations. Find Nancy on LinkedIn or reach out to her to learn more about authentic leadership and her coaching, facilitation, and training services.


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