Gen Z to Baby Boomers in the Workplace: How to Communicate Across the Generational Divide

For the first time, today’s workplaces are a blend of five generations, including Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z. In the same way that an effective leader adapts their communication style to an individual, today’s leaders must adapt to meet the needs of every generation while fostering an inclusive environment. This evolution of your style can give you an advantage in the war for talent.

At Vistage we benefit from having all five generations involved with our company – from interns just starting their careers to some of our executive coaches who are generously adding value to our company well into their 80s. Younger and older workers learn from each other daily, with all workers being able to contribute their own expertise or perspective. Leaders can foster this exchange of information by encouraging diverse teams and opportunities for different generations to work together.

We’ve found that some of our foundational values such as trust, respect, authenticity and fostering a growth mindset are crucial for all generations. When leaders respect each person, share clear feedback and are open to ideas from all levels of the organization, the workplace feels authentic and energized. The organization benefits from a diversity of options across generations.

With that said, there are differences amongst the generations. Millennials and Gen Z tend to be less hierarchical and want to deal directly with the top of the organization. It’s not uncommon for these generations to respond directly to leadership after an all hands update or ask questions during a staff meeting. Their Gen X colleagues, however, might discretely seek out their manager. This is a great opportunity for Boomer or Traditionalist leaders to send a positive message to the rest of the organization about approachability and the value of opinions from all levels. Leaders should also provide immediate and direct feedback and for some leaders that’s an adjustment of style.

To text or not to text

While there’s certainly some truth to the idea that Millennials and Gen Z are more comfortable communicating electronically; it’s not fair to generalize and say that other generations aren’t comfortable with digital communications. As leaders we need to ensure we are responsive to everyone and communicating clearly. And there are some instances where the medium is very important for communications.

Newer leaders, regardless of age, can rely too heavily on email or text messaging for difficult issues giving the recipient the impression that proper respect is not being paid to an issue. Trying to cover difficult issues over email or text regularly leads to miscommunication. Face-to-face or over the phone is always preferable here, and leaders must take the time to prioritize these interactions, especially when leading diverse teams.

Millennials face additional challenges as more of them move into leadership positions and must balance communicating with the all the generations that came before them, managing other Millennials and Gen Z. When it comes to good news, younger generations might be thrilled by a congratulatory email from the CEO, but many Boomers would prefer to receive a phone call or personal visit for the same message. Great leaders can adjust their communication style to meet the needs of all their teams.

The power of purpose

As more Millennials and Gen Z have entered the workforce, we’ve seen a number of other positive changes. For example, these generations blend their work and professional lives in a new way. Work is a place to build relationships and have fun. They don’t subscribe to the workaholic mentality, but still work hard and are incredibly effective. It’s been energizing for our teams.

We also repeatedly emphasize purpose for our business which is a powerful motivator for these generations. A 2017 report by American Express showed that 78% of U.S. Millennials feel that it’s important for the values of their employer to match their personal values and Gen Z may feel even more strongly about this. While these generations are reinforcing our commitment to purpose, all stakeholders benefit from being reminded about how their role impacts the entire organization.

In the Q1 2019 Vistage CEO Confidence Index survey, 59% of CEOs said they plan to increase headcount this year, and 47% said attracting qualified talent is their most critical talent management challenge. Embracing our multi-generational workforce has been very positive for us.  If your organization can appeal to workers from 18 to 85, you not only benefit from diverse points of view, but you can attract the very best employees regardless of generation.


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