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Generations at Work, or Stereotyping?

Submitted by  on August 24th, 2012

Devil and halo business figuresMost people have heard of the Generations at Work discussion theme centered on how individuals’ age differences determine how people act in work and learning. I’ve seen many seminars/articles on this topic (since 2005) and haven’t seen a positive result from the “Generations at work” seminars, articles and discussions. To me, it’s tantamount to stereotyping. It neatly slots people into convenient categories with (presumed) behaviors. There is not always a good fit. For example, my mother is a “Traditionalist” and a computer-savvy 71 year old who works full-time. She does not fit the mould for her age group. I have also met a few young people who shunned computers (rare as it is). While there are common themes often seen with certain age groups related to learning and work behaviors, it’s best to avoid generalizations.

Of greater value would be a session on this topic that opened up the dialogue about effective communication methods (e.g., pairing younger supervisors with much older supervisors for reverse mentoring on social media in exchange for role mentoring). The bottom line seems to be work expectation clarity. The same holds true for the training room – avoid painting a certain type of learner with the same brush, or you could end up unknowingly facilitating a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e., people act like you expect them to).

Challenges with age and ability in work and learning settings have always existed (or co-existed) in classrooms and workplaces. Only in recent years have we legislated fairness and has various differences among staff become more prevalent? This concept of “the adaptive dimension” (accommodating differences) takes me back to Teacher’s College (1994). All trainers/teachers need to adjust their methods or materials accordingly to respect and meet individualized learners’ unique needs as best they can in a group setting. In this light, it’s hard to see “The Generations” as a new, ground-breaking or value-added concept.

Canada’s long history of accepting and integrating cross-cultural, linguistic and other differences into a “Multicultural Mosaic” (as opposed to a “Melting Pot”) has become one of the distinct features of the Great White North. The acceptance and celebration of diversity – in the workplace, the classroom, and society in general – will continue to pave the way to economic success through respectful appreciation, cooperation and collaboration in years to come.

Appreciating cultural and other differences at work or in learning settings ironically helps us see how we are each unique. If you “Think different” rather than encouraging homogeneity, you open the doors to organizational innovation that’s critical to surviving and thriving in a dynamic and rapidly changing world. Learning to appreciate different perspectives, experience levels and skills of all staff, including those of different age groups, aids group cohesion. McDonald’s has benefited from standardization of its processes and practices for a uniform product, no matter which of its locations you go to. With people, appreciating difference leads to understanding it.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, seems to agree – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Supervisors would be well advised to do the same and not presume that a “Millennial” employee is being rude or evasive by texting his supervisor a message instead of calling. Providing clear expectations and making an effort to find a middle ground at work enables respectful communications for working towards mutual goals. Focusing on the ties that bind is more beneficial than concentrating on “Generational Differences”, which may not be valid and can do a disservice by painting all members of an age group with the same brush.

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Posted in Communication, Training | Comments (5)

5 Responses to “Generations at Work, or Stereotyping?”

  1. Stuart Riesen Says:

    I like your perspective which focuses on improving communication, which is definitely in our control, versus focusing on generational differences which aren’t necessarily. I agree that the temptation to stereotype is strong and we need to fight against that temptation but there is some basis of truth to a stereotype. In this situation the case could be made for that truth being: younger generations TEND to be more computer-savvy and prone to communicating electronically than older generations. There can certainly be no question that electronic communication has risen dramatically in the past few generations. That leads me to a question that has been haunting me for some time: if 93% of communication is made through body language how can that barrier be overcome now when body language can’t necessarily be seen?

    Ultimately I think you make an excellent point that in spite of how communication is changing (be it good, bad or indifferent) we need to focus on increasing the likely-hood of understanding to be understood. I would be curious to know thoughts on how others have successfully achieved this especially when we primarily communicate via email, blogging, tweets, etc.

    BTW I love your blogs they always keep me thinking 🙂 Keep up the good work!

  2. Leslie Allan Says:

    Hi Stuart,

    Thanks for your thoughtful words and kind remarks. I would like to add that the view that 93% of communication is non-verbal is a myth and is based on a serious misrepresentation of the work of Mehrabian. There are lots of debunkings of this myth on the web and here is just one:

    Thanks again for your contributions to this important subject.

    Kind Regards, Les Allan

  3. Stuart Riesen Says:

    Wow!! I had no idea! Thanks for that great link. I’m going to Tweet it as soon as I’m done because this is something I have been taught since…forever.

    I’d be interested to carry on the conversation of eCommunication barriers in light of this. Do you have additional info on this subject?

    Once again great article and thanks for the correction 🙂

    Kind Regards,
    Stuart Riesen

  4. Leslie Allan Says:

    Hi Stuart,

    Yes, it’s an extremely popular myth. I was taught the wrong info when I was at University and I still see the misinterpretations regularly.

    I can’t put my finger on any other research on eCommunication barriers at the moment. I do wonder about generational differences though. A University of Melbourne study a few years ago showed that Millennials and Geny Y are not as much the “digital natives” as we thought.

    Many people of those generations shunned the new technology. As some studies have shown, many of the supposed generational differences are more accurately explained by differences in personality type and age than by generation.

    Kind Regards, Les Allan

  5. Karen Carleton Says:

    Hi Stuart/Les

    Thanks for the engaging discussion. I too appreciated the explanation of the realities behind the ever-popular Meharbian Myth.

    In any form of communications clarity, sincerity, perception checking and reinforcement are key. Some elements of effective e-communication are discussed here: Of course, the overriding tone of communication should convey one of respect. Apparently, some restaurants are starting to ban cell phones or check them at the door in exchange for a 5% discount on your meal. This should help curb the mindless phone obsession of some patrons. Here in my city there’s a popular, free, agenda-less, city-wide networking event called “The Art of Conversation.” It offers free appetizers and hosts good old fashioned mingling (i.e. no mobile devices). These types of behavior shaping incentives help us focus on what counts – people.


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