Career Corner: The generational gap...
Recently a friend of mine expressed shock (and some amusement) with the tone/types of emails she received from one of her employees. Instead of being addressed as “Mrs. X” when she received e-mails from her team member, or even being addressed by her first name, her employee addressed her by an abbreviated version of her first name...(think of me being called ‘Mal’ instead of Malaika). Added to the name issue, emails included slangs like “ty” instead of “Thank You” and “LOL” for whatever was deemed amusing.
My friend was confused about why her employee thought it appropriate to communicate with her like that, as she didn’t think it was acceptable, and she certainly wouldn’t communicate like that with her boss. After sharing the occurrence with me, my first question was to ask how old her employee was, and as I suspected she was a young woman in her early 20s, a member of what is popularly dubbed the ‘Millennial’ or ‘Gen Y’ generation. My friend on the other hand was older- a member of the ‘Gen X’ group.
As we have all experienced, at some time or another- communication across different generations can bring with it interesting challenges. Whether we are new to the workforce, at the midpoint of our career or closer to retirement, we all have different ways of communicating with each other, and varying beliefs about what is “appropriate” communication. Often times however these beliefs conflict, and can lead to misunderstanding and annoyance. But it really doesn't have to be this way. The reality is that we have an increasing number of persons from different age groups working together, and we will therefore interact across different generational groups at work. The key is to ensure that we communicate well and get our message across successfully. The tips below should help us all to communicate effectively, whether we are Millennials, Baby Boomers or somewhere in between:
- Set Guidelines: in your department, or on your respective teams establish what is “acceptable.” If you work in an informal environment and it is acceptable to use slangs and “broken English” then you may communicate in this manner. If however, you operate in a more formal environment, then ensure that you adhere to more formal communication guidelines. What is important is to ensure that communication guidelines are established, and to stick to them.
- Use Different Methods of Communication: thanks to advances in technology, there are different ways to communicate…we can email, send a text message, use WhatsApp etc. With these options available, it’s ok to use any of these different methods of communication. Be guided however by organizational culture. If you work in a very formal culture, it may not be acceptable to send your boss a WhatsApp message- if this is the case, an email may be more appropriate.
- Different Methods for Different Colleagues: In your department, you may have a team member who only communicates via email. Another colleague, might rely on Instant Messages, while you may actually find it easier to have a quick conversation face-to-face or by telephone. In situations like these, it may simply be easier to adjust your communication style for different team members. Changing your style to suit the recipient can feel burdensome, but if you can make adjustments for them (and they make adjustments for you) communication in the office may just get easier... Also, you may find that you get a response from your colleagues much sooner via instant messaging than email, and in our fast paced world, this is quite good!
- Be Flexible…and speak up: if you do not like the communication method used by your colleague, try not to be annoyed (…yes, they could have just sent a message, and really didn’t have to call)…but, be flexible, your colleague is merely doing what s/he feel is appropriate. If you really don’t like it however, tell them and ask them to communicate with you using your preferred method.
Good communication can make a big difference in how well we operate at work- it may serve us well therefore to get comfortable using different tools. What communication techniques do you use?
Malaika T. Edwards is a Human Resources consultant and provides advisory services to individuals and business clients. She is also a PhD scholar at the Louisiana State University (LSU) where she specializes in Human Resources and Workforce Development. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/malaika-edwards.