Making Generational Diversity A Workplace Win
As a Baby Boomer college professor, I became aware of a new generation of students in 2002. Suddenly — boom! — I was met with a class that would not let me teach them until they trusted me. To trust me, they had to know why they needed this course, why it mattered, and how they could use it in their future professions.
Who were these people?
How dare they challenge my authority, I thought. They needed the course because I took it and the university said it was required. It sent me into an existential tailspin. I had never really thought about why.
That's when I began realizing the incredible diversity of the generations.
Stop The Stereotyping
Generational diversity is getting a lot of attention right now. You may wonder why, since we’ve always had people of different ages, right? True, but the dawning of the 21st century introduced changes into society, and a brand new generation was among them.
Known as Millennials, these tech-savvy young people had a whole new way of being in the world — and now, in the workplace.
Diversity means sharing my workspace with someone who differs from me in race, gender, sexual orientation and generation. Inclusion means intentionally engaging their strengths and working with them to achieve work wins.
A recent study by Spherion found that roughly 25% of employees make judgments about their coworkers’ and supervisors’ abilities to do their jobs based on their age alone. It’s as high as 39% among Millennials. This judgment leads to stereotyping and statements like:
“He’s too young to be considered for a leadership position.”
“She’s too old to be tech-savvy.”
Are we aware these stereotypes easily lead to discrimination? Ageism is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person’s age.
But when we make cursory judgements and start stereotyping our coworkers when all we know about them is their age, we cut off all kinds of potential work wins. And we might not even realize we’re doing it.
Like any other problem our world seeks to fix, education and awareness are where we must start. We can’t do anything about a problem we don’t even know about. That’s why causes and non-profit organizations and charities hold events for the sole purpose of “raising awareness” — just to educate and let you know what the problem is.
Now that you’re reading this article, consider yourself aware of the ageism that may be happening in your workplace. Now you know, and that’s good. We can move forward and make progress.
You became aware of the generation differences in your office or workplace at some point because you experienced it. And if you’re like me, your first reaction might have been surprise, confusion, feeling threatened, and ultimately angry; anger makes me resistant. That was my first reaction when I experienced it in my classroom.
Awareness Exercise: Recall the first time you realized you were working with someone whose generational perspective was very different from yours. Where were you and what happened? What was your gut reaction to the difference? What was your takeaway?
Despite my resistance, this journey became transformative for me. I had to let go of a lot of outmoded, superficial ways of teaching, and I couldn’t rely simply on my position as their professor to make them listen.
Outcome: I became more authentic. I gained student trust and they let me lead them through their own transformation as scholars. I found that giving them autonomy, flexibility, and creative use of technology for problem solving resulted in outcomes I never could have imagined.
Here’s what I know to be true: our Millennial generation is extremely intelligent, hard working when engaged, is not afraid to take risks and innovate. This calls for celebration.
From Resistance To Acceptance
At first I was resistant — indignant, even. But the longer I fretted over it, the more I realized stewing only wasted my time and the students’. If I would not teach in a way they would learn, just because I was the teacher, nobody would benefit.
How do we get from Resistance to Acceptance in the generational diversity process?
Awareness is the first step It takes some work to understand the context of generational differences, and especially why the new generation is markedly different from previous generations. There is an endless supply of resources on the Millennial generation. Infographics and charts abound, detailing social, political, environmental, technological and economic circumstances that have helped form the five generations currently in the work place.
Exercise: After reviewing this chart, think about the description of your generation. In what ways do you identify, and in what ways do you differ? It is worth noting that within every generational category, every individual differs in some way.
Now that you’ve seen a few factors that differentiate the generations, just sit a minute. Shakespeare noted that “Nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” What if the differences between the generations are neither good nor bad — just different? Does that make them easier to accept? How might a change in your thinking about the generational differences shift your attitude toward the other generations and move you to acceptance?
It’s worth noting that acceptance does not mean approval. Just because you accept someone or a group of people doesn’t mean you approve all of their opinions and behavior. It just means you don’t pressure them to be someone or something they’re not. Acceptance means meeting people where they are and moving forward together.
I finally figured out that bristling against the Millennials in the classroom would only make my life — and theirs — more difficult. Trying to change them wouldn’t work, nor should it. Instead, I decided to accept them for who they are. And eventually, I grew to appreciate how we are different.
I had accomplished the awareness and the acceptance steps. But now I had to put some action to my newfound love for this generation.
Two beginning action steps will aide you in gaining generational diversity:
1. Bump up the value of Face-to-Face conversations.
2. Facilitate Courageous Conversations with your diverse workforce.
For reasons I cannot explain, when I look into the eyes of the person to whom I am listening or speaking to, I can hear better — and understand better. Sometimes a bit of empathy even surfaces. What if we are all in this together, after all? What a concept!
One thing I learned when re-structuring my millennial centered classroom was that no tech advancement could replace the need for the good, old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. The kind where we listened to what other people had to say, we tried to understand why they thought the way they did and found ways to combine differing ideas into something new that solved a problem.
I would like to say that face-to-face class conversations evolved quickly and easily, but they did not. We had to overcome the great disruptors: ubiquitous smartphones and laptop computers. There is a time and a place for multi-tasking, but a discussion session is not one of them. Electronic screens interrupt eye contact — and that messes with listening. Without careful listening I cannot contribute anything of value to the conversation, so what’s the point?
Initially, I made a few weak pleas to put the electronics away to see if we could bump up discussion engagement. Largely ignored. I also realized the plethora of written venues available meant that the millennial did not have as much practice with face-to-face interaction as my generation had. Or was it possible the electronic world was perceived as safer than the real one we were gathered in? A risk-free, demand-free zone?
Gradually, I realized it was me versus these electronic shields. My mission was to prepare these students for the workforce they were about to enter, and we would practice the soft-skill of face-to-face conversation or so help me…
NEW RULE: CLASS DISCUSSIONS ELECTRONICS-FREE ZONE
Consequence of not honoring the rule? Dismissal from class for that session.
Context is everything. I explained WHY face-to-face conversation skills matter and the role they play in the work world. Boom. The real conversations began!
Generational Inclusion happens when we level the playing field. Tech free. Sit together. Listen. Talk. Trust the process. Take differing ideas and turn them into a whole new way of solving a problem.
Action Step: Convene for an electronics-free discussion meeting from time to time. Muddle through the awkwardness of looking around the room instead of at an app. Make small talk with someone you don’t always talk to. Make eye contact, really listen, ask for input. Lead by example. Electronics are necessary tools to get things done, but human interaction determines what to do.
Facilitate Courageous Community Conversation:
What happens when we gather a multi-generational group of workers specifically to…
name our perceptions of each other?
learn about the context in which generational differences evolved?
frame our differences as strengths for company progress?
I recently facilitated a Courageous Conversation for an advertising agency that was grappling with the threat of marginalizing their older employees in order to support the youth-driven culture of the industry. We broke the ice interactively by using our body language to illustrate our perception of the “other” generation. The reactions were humor, recognition, and an instant conversation. We talked about why we perceived what we did, but we also had to confront the messages we were sending to create those stereotypes.
Getting honest in the presence of one another builds trust. We’ve taken a risk together, “named the beast” and that’s when fear diminishes.
Next, using the Generational Chart, I gave the group an overview of the historical, social, economic, technological, and environmental events that shaped each generation. Once we could acknowledge that the world we grew up in shapes our identities, the case for generational difference was settled. It allowed us to see ourselves, naming where we fit in and where we differed from our generation’s norm. Recognition of our variants from the generational differentiators allows us to approach each other as individuals.
The Conversation wrapped up with multi-generational small groups discussing — brainstorming — how Millennial tech-savvy, innovative skills, combined with Gen X experience and Baby boomer wisdom can optimize product/service development and customer service. The key question here is, “Where can the sum of our differences strengthen the whole?”
Worth the Work
Turning Generational Diversity into a company win begins with tech-free, face-to-face conversations, an intentional courageous conversation naming differences, and leveraging the differences to solve problems.
It will take some work, but the work will yield results that are worth it. We’re all in this together after all.
If you would like to host a Courageous/Community Conversation, I am happy to help you!