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Workplace & Intergenerational Communication

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Communication between people has always been fraught with conflicts as individuals have their own unique way of communicating and interpreting the messages of others. Combine this with the tremendous generational diversity in today’s workplace and managers have a potential cauldron of trouble on their hands. This article will address some of the communication challenges which result from today’s multi-generational work force and how mediation can be used to address these challenges.

Today’s workforce

In a Forbes article, we find that a third of the working adults in career jobs today, consist of Millennials. Moreover, due to higher costs of living, many Baby Boomers work until much later ages. With such a wide spectrum of ages, managers are faced with the wide spectrum of communication methods and styles. The generation gap can produce much conflict as co-workers and managers grapple with the various challenges. When employees and managers don’t get along with each other and communication goes astray, it is vital that businesses have conflict resolution skills in their tool kit.

Labor Force Composition by GenerationVarying work preferences

These younger employees tend to bring with them a shift in attitudes and communication styles, as well as a tendency to place more importance on technology and flexibility. According to Forbes, younger workers place flexibility as a top priority: “The numbers are telling: when asked which benefits are most important to them, work flexibility ranked first, at 19.1%, followed by healthcare coverage at 16.9%.” This emphasis on flexibility leads to a growing rise in partial telecommuting, co-working spaces, and even full-time telecommuting. This means that meetings are conducted over the phone or using meeting websites that allow webcams and screen-sharing, and employees may spend less time commuting to a traditional office and more time working from home. Such a shift in company policy could cause a great deal of consternation for employees who prefer a more traditional workplace model.

Potential conflicts that can arise from the shift to alternative work venues are numerous. These include reduced team cohesion, problems with accountability, and uneven application of workplace policies.

Varying communication methods and styles

Along with changes to the venue of the office are changes in attitudes about how coworkers communicate with each other and relate to managers. Younger workers have a greater preference for communicating online, whether that means using social media, chat services, or email. Phone calls and faxes are rarely used by this group. Coworkers in the younger age brackets are more likely to email, text, tweet, or message each other over social media than call or ask for an in-person meeting. But this predilection places younger workers in direct conflict with the traditional communication styles of older generations, who predominately prefer phone calls, emails, or in-person dialogue.

This preference for distance communication among the younger generations leaves room for frequent misunderstandings. Body language and tone of voice comprise 93% of our communication.  Misinterpretation of tone of voice is the source of many conflicts.  Managers need to try to address these misunderstandings early before they boil over and become bigger problems.

Common threads lead to understanding

Mangers willing to ascertain common beliefs and needs find that people of all generations seek self-actualization in their lives, financial security, and the ability to grow in their careers. Finding this commonality within all individuals helps forge a cohesive group that is willing to work toward a better way of communicating. While this may seem difficult, it’s quite simple to achieve if differences are diminished and common needs are emphasized. There actually are quite a number of common concerns across the generations. For instance, meaning and values matter to younger employees, who say that they prefer to feel like their work has an impact on the company or on society, and who prefer rewarding experiences over strict career paths. Older workers have similar concerns, and desire to find meaning in their work.

What can managers do?

Managers should carefully listen to all members of their teams. Developing a full understanding of the different motivations of each generational group would assist in problem solving. For instance, it is well known that Millennials desire immediate feedback on their work. Understanding this desire for feedback and providing it as soon as possible will go a long way toward eliminating conflicts. In addition, team members should have some basic conflict resolution skills so they can use self help and try to resolve conflicts early.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience.  Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She became chair of MCDR’s certification committee this year.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.



Author: Ellen Kandell

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