Reducing Workplace Communication Friction Across Generations

Improving MultiGenerational Communication

Communication is critical for a business to be successful, no matter the industry. Your teams need to communicate with each other and your company needs to communicate with prospects and customers.

There are many ways to improve communication, for example, having an open company culture, training on communication skills, or deploying tools which help to improve how people and companies communicate. None of these alone work to alleviate the natural friction that occurs in the communication between different generations. This is an area I’ve been exploring as I look at tactics and methods to improve customer interactions. I’ve learned that by understanding why this friction occurs, you can overcome multigenerational communication challenges and help each generation improve how they relate and communicate. It all starts with understanding why this friction exists.

The Shifting Workforce

Right now is an especially interesting time due to each of the current working generations: Baby Boomers (born 1946-1965); Generation X (born 1966-1985); and Millennials (born 1985-2005); makeup roughly 1/3 of today’s workforce. According to the Pew Research Center, Baby Boomers make up 29%, Generation X make up 34% and Millennials make up 34% of the workforce. The small remainder is older than Baby Boomers, or the beginning of the post-millennial generation. Five years ago, half of the workforce was Baby Boomers, and in another 5-10 years Millennials will make up close to half. A shift is happening.

Because today’s workplace is full of people born at different times who have had different life experiences, we live with different value systems and communication styles. Each of us comes from a specific generation and we carry our own style and bias. I’m about to generalize — even though that isn’t a great idea — and generalizing does not always hold true. There are 20-year spans to each generation and someone born at the beginning or the end of that span is going to have a different bias than someone born in the middle or on the other end. But it is necessary to generalize to begin to understand the differences in communication styles. Full disclosure – I’m a baby boomer, and I don’t exactly fit the mold of my generation. Everyone has a unique communication style. Generalizations are for the purpose of understanding only, don’t apply them to individuals.

Understanding Different Communication Preferences

MultiGenerational communication
MultiGenerational communication: Differing preferences create friction

Most Baby Boomers prefer in person or phone communication and are more formal in general. They rely on long detailed filled emails with lots of background and context. We Boomers didn’t grow up with much technology and therefore, many Baby Boomers are slow to adopt it.

Generation X exhibits a broader spectrum of communication styles and are comfortable with formal, face to face communication, and are very comfortable with digital communication like Slack/Text/IM channels. They tend to be big users of social modes because social media came about in this generation. This generation grew up with early technology, making them resilient and adaptable in their communication style and use of technology.

Millennials are digital natives that tend to prefer digital communication. They are more informal or brief and use abbreviations or emoji’s which are convenient in digital communication. Millennials seem to prefer quick interactions and do not provide context unless they are asked for it. Some get uncomfortable with in-person and phone communication and others are fine with it.

Managing Differences to Reduce Friction

All of this creates a natural friction that has to be managed. Communication becomes good when all these groups are working together and share some understanding of the differences in their communication styles. Everyone needs to gain self-awareness about their own communication bias, and foster empathy, understanding and acceptance of each other’s communication style preferences. You can accomplish this by educating everyone about the generational differences and agreeing on and implementing team norms and standards across the company. For example, when is it important to use more formal communication? How much context should be provided in different situations? What mode of communication is ok to use and when?

For the non-digital natives who are uncomfortable with chat, you can set up “chat” office hours and ensure everyone is available at least some of the time. Setting standards and helping teams to understand the different styles will go a long way toward improving communication. Don’t forget, that your customers also come from different generations. Pay attention to the people who interact with them and ensure that they have a strong communication muscle across all the modes of communication. Ideally, everyone does. It’s not an easy task but it’s worth it.

By paying attention to friction that exists and bringing awareness to everyone about their own communication bias, you can greatly improve multigenerational communication.

To learn more about multigenerational communication, listen to the latest episode of Essential here.