Navigating Communication in an Inter-Generational Workplace

I went to watch a high school musical this week (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song) and left the theatre with one of the songs from the show stuck in my head. In the musical, this particular song is sung first by the parents and later by the children, and while the verses change, the chorus stays the same: “What are we going to do about the other generation?  How will we ever communicate without communication?”

The line is quite catchy when sung, and I’ve been contemplating the idea a bit more this week, what with those lines constantly repeating in my head. It has made me think a bit more about the early part of my management career, during which I at first struggled greatly and then eventually found success in effective inter-generational communication.

When I became a manager seven years ago I was significantly younger than the majority of staff I was supervising. I remember this was an area of concern for the District Manager who interviewed me; he specifically asked how I was planning to address a situation where an older employee didn’t feel that they needed to listen to me. I rattled off an answer that at least was “good enough”, seeing as I was hired for the job; I spoke being an active listener, asking for opinions, and speaking tactfully and respectfully.

Not to say that these ideas are not useful; however, on their own they certainly didn’t prove to be enough. Further, they were difficult to stick with, especially in a conflict situation. I found myself involved in pointless power struggles, arguing about issues which certainly weren’t worth the stress. I often felt like certain employees resisted only for the sake of resisting. Reflecting now, as much as they resisted, I was a mirror to them in terms of will; I was asserting myself only for the sake of asserting as well.

This tug of war became very exhausting, and I thought a lot about how to improve my relationship with more senior staff. I was having far more success dealing with staff in my generation or younger- what was the difference I was missing with the other generations?

Eventually I realized that the difference was in the relationships that I was building. With staff my own age, I was having a better time- speaking with humour, relating and listening to stories, acknowledging my faults and errors, commiserating. My relationship with employees of other generations tended to be strictly work-related. It seemed unlikely to me at the time that we might have much in common.

Bridging that gap took time. I started working on improving my relationships with everyone, not only with the people who were easy to talk to. I asked more about what was going on in their daily lives; I made sure I always greeted them when they came in, and thanked them warmly when they left; I worked on reading facial expressions and body language, and then asking questions to discover conflicts before they erupted. I was very public in asking them for opinions on improvements, and always private in assessing their performance. All of the sudden, I was not only finding myself more effective as a manager, but happier in my work as well.

A caveat: friendship, or friendliness, is not always the best basis upon which to build a successful working relationship. The line here can be hard to discern, and shifts with each person. A part of the friendship I build with an employee always has to have a strong element in trust in that person’s ability to be competent and responsible in their work. Where this has occasionally gone wrong for me is a subject for another day. I will say though that this issue has actually never occurred in the relationships I have built with more mature employees.

My main point here is that we often need to go outside our comfort zone and extend ourselves to others, even when we might not feel that we are very similar. Communication becomes much easier when you can build a sense of familiarity with each other; areas where issues may have arisen can be more easily navigated when you know how a person might react. Putting in the effort to get to know everyone can not only make you more effective, but can enrich your life in ways you hadn’t expected.

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