Mind the (Generation) Gaps


If you’ve ever been to London, England and ridden the underground subway, you’ve heard the announcer say, “Mind the gap” as you step onto or off of the train cars. My first trip there was in 1993 when I was studying abroad in Paris for a semester. I visited London with my parents. It’s a phrase that has stuck with me. Whenever I hear people talk about generation gaps, it comes back to my head and I hear, “Mind the Generation Gap”. Silly, I know.

You can find tons of things written about generation gaps in the workplace today. Depending on how you slice them up, there are four generations represented. Each generation has a stereotypical communication style. There are exceptions to every rule. But the older you are, the stronger your preference will likely be for hierarchy and traditional, more formal ways. The younger you are, the stronger your preference will likely be for flexibility in all areas, including communication.

I’m not here to duplicate those ideas. My area of interest is in with what you do with those gaps. How do people from different generations communicate effectively? How do you cross the generation gap? How do you close it? Here are a few ideas to consider.

Examine your own attitudes first.

How do you feel about the other generations you find in your workplace? Think back to when you entered the workforce. How did older workers respond to you? What helped you? What hurt? When you interact with colleagues from other generations, what barriers do you find? What do you have in common?

Reflect on what you have observed.

Before you approach someone, think about what you’ve noticed about them. How do they seem to prefer to interact with other people? If they’ve reached out to you before, have they done so through email? By phone? Through an app of some sort? Their behavior may fit with their generational stereotype, or it may not. When dealing with an individual, it’s best to think about what you’ve noticed about them individually. If you’re planning to approach a team whose members are mostly from one generation, those generalizations might be more helpful.

When in doubt, ask.

If you don’t really know much about someone’s preferences for communicating, you can always ask. Some of my favorite questions include:

  • Do you have a preferred way to communicate about projects?
  • How would you like me to keep you updated? How often? By what method?
  • What’s the best way to get feedback from you? How about to give feedback?
  • If I have a quick question about something, what’s the best way to ask you? (call, text, message, etc.)

Build trust through asking more.

In addition to these very specific questions, you can get a lot out of a working relationship when you show interest in the other person. How did they get their start in the industry? What attracted them to their career choice? Where did they grow up? What was that like? Who are their heroes? What do they value in a co-worker? What’s the last book they read?

Questions which show genuine interest in who they are, what they care about, and how they like to work are very effective for building trust.

Generation gaps are real. They can cause initial hesitance. But they don’t have to be impediments to working together effectively. Who knows? You may even learn something important from one another.

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