Author Archives: Nicole Davidson

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.

International Diversity Strategies: Diversity Matters Everywhere

When considering diversity strategies, I am reminded of a project I did a few years ago. The project looked at strategies from different countries (in this case, Sweden and Norway in particular) which were designed to increase the number of women in executive or board member positions. It was interesting that, while considering that these two countries are quite similar in terms of ideology and efforts to be inclusive, they took very different approaches to the issue.

The approach in Sweden is meant to institutionalize inclusion from the beginning. Equality is taught to children in school, and the culture and values of the country support this equal treatment. This “softer” approach requires companies to have programs (primarily mentorship programs) which support the inclusion of women, but are not required to meet certain quotas. Currently Sweden is applying this same approach to diversity with visible minorities, sponsoring cultural sensitivity workshops, and taking a strong stance against discrimination.

Conversely, Norway took what could be considered a “hard” approach. In 2005, the government in Norway instituted a gender quota. The law required that for most boards, women must make up 40 per cent of the board directors, with a 2008 deadline for compliance. This law was initially met with strong resistance, but the majority of companies did comply (non-compliance would result in dissolution of a board, so they had quite a bit of motivation).

Looking at the results now, Norway does lead significantly in the percentage of women in their boardrooms. In Sweden, women represent about 25 percent of board members, while in Norway women represent closer to 37 percent.

As well, a study by the Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business has recently deemed the project in Norway a success, where the increased number of women in the boardroom has led to “more focused and strategic decision making, increased communication, and decreased conflict”.  The study concluded that quotas are the only proven method of increasing the number of women in boards, and should be considered in Canada.

But does Canada truly have an issue with boardroom diversity? Studies in Montreal and Toronto think that they do, but not necessarily as much with women as with visible minorities. Canada has followed a similar path to that of Sweden, and has achieved similar results. In Toronto, women account for about 28 percent of leadership roles, while in Quebec they represent about 31 percent. However when you look at visible minorities, the numbers become extremely low.

In the Greater Toronto Area, female visible minorities account for 2.6 percent of all leaders, yet they make up 25 per cent of the overall population. Similarly in Quebec, 5.9 percent of leaders are visible minorities of either gender, while making up 22.5 per cent of the population. These numbers represent a significant lack of visible minorities in leadership positions.

It seems that in Canada there is a strong case for the quota approach, especially in the case of visible minorities. However within a company the best option to increase diversity (and reap the benefits of doing so) is to ensure that the corporate culture is aligned with valuing diversity. This involves promoting awareness of different cultures and values, and encouraging employees to consider the worldviews of those in different cultures. Supporting diversity is most often done through training or mentoring programs, but it is important to ensure that the goals that are being demonstrated are also reflected in the corporate culture.

Achieving diversity is not an end, but rather a means to an end; the goal is to increase a company’s competitiveness and creativity through diversity by empowering all employees to contribute, regardless of race or gender. I think if we consider diversity in this way, we can see that corporate diversity strategies are truly necessary. The success in Norway is a good example of how a balanced team can result in a better corporate future.