The Compelling Case for Cross-Generational Conversations

you can't google it

Generational Conversations

Many people who write me express frustration about dealing with a different generation. Often the emails I receive are full of sweeping generalizations and accusations. Some are less frustrated, but sincerely baffled, wondering how to bridge the divide.

You Can’t Google It: The Compelling Case for Cross-Generational Conversation at Work by Phyllis Weiss Haserot is a book written to help companies, their leaders and personnel of all generations work harmoniously together to understand each other and achieve their common goals faster, profitably and sustainably.

I recently spoke with Phyllis about her research and book.



Achieve Generational Harmony

Tell us about this word you coined: GENgagement™.

I’ve defined GENgagement as the state of achieving harmony, mutual involvement and cooperation, flow, and ongoing absorption in work with people of different generations.

GENgagement means getting all of the generations to understand each other, their influences, and their worldviews so they can work collaboratively, loyally, and productively. It is integral to the mission of transforming workplaces into engaged and productive environments for solving problems and being great places to work.

Benefits to organizations when workers are harmoniously engaged include desired talent retention, development of new skills, competitive intelligence, innovative ideas, and smooth transfer of external relationships – and increased profitability. According to an Aon Hewitt study, a 5% increase in engagement can generate an increase of 3% in revenue growth the following year.



What are a few of the obstacles to achieving GENgagement?

Perpetuating myths from the hype in the media, misinterpretation of behaviors and erroneous stereotypes that lead many people to retreat into tribes of similarities is one. Another obstacle is hoarding of knowledge, either of data or valuable experiences and external relationships, rather than encouraging or requiring knowledge transfer. And we see in many organizations unsupportive senior management or established culture which incentivizes (unfriendly) competition among colleagues and teammates rather than collaboration.

One of the members of a multigenerational team I interviewed for the book shared a discouraging example of unsupportive senior management: rigidity that discourages discussion and financial structures detrimental to sharing revenue. The original leaders encouraged lively discussion and brainstorming. “When they retired, they were replaced by people who thought you could mandate great ideas and squeeze productivity out of people who were being paid to amass information, synthesize it, and think for a living. They discouraged discussion—too disruptive. So, people stopped coming into the office. They wrote short inconsequential papers to meet the requirements of more reports per year. The vitality of the group was sapped.”



You have seen so many perceptions and misperceptions. Would you share a few?

To start with, there is the misperception that Millennials only want to work with other Millennials. That has not been my experience at all, though people may be more comfortable, if they had not been exposed previously to much age diversity, with people more like them. I get confirmation all the time that Millennials are eager to get the perspectives and learn from older generations.

One Millennial I interviewed said that his “asking questions was interpreted as challenging authority when actually I want to clarify expectations so I can best meet requests and needs.” I have heard similar from other managers and professionals I have worked with.

People tossing around the “entitled” label really irks me. Some individuals in every generation exhibit what’s popularly called “entitlement.” In their early years in the workplace, Gen Xers were called entitled and slackers. Then they became hard workers and conveyed the label on Gen Y/Millennials, often because the latter want a voice in decisions affecting them. That’s how they were raised and educated. And I’ve observed that some Boomer senior managers seem to believe they are entitled to be compensated as much in down times for their organization as in the best years.


What advice do you give to the person who is networking across generational lines?

All successful networking is dependent on two key things: reciprocity and curiosity. Both attributes receive a chapter each, looked at through generational lenses—and networking is an important part of the discussion. I advise people to adopt a mindset of excitement about what they can learn from the other person rather than focusing on themselves. How does a person of another generation see the world? What are their perspectives on things of interest to them and to you? What proven experience can you learn from?

Learn to ask good questions showing your interest and leading to lively conversations. Your conversation partners will think you are fascinating since you are interested in them, and a great relationship can start.

Some useful questions are laid out in the book such as:  How do you most like to spend your time?
What’s the most important lesson or insight you’ve gotten from your work? What do you wish you had known at the start of your career?
How do you think work should be restructured to make it more productive and enjoyable? How do you think you can be most helpful to teammates?


Bridge Diverse Generations

How do organizations best “bridge” diverse generations and lead change with trust and empathy?

The desire to understand the perspectives and motivations of work colleagues of different generations helps to develop trust and empathy, and organization leaders need to encourage and support individuals and teams to take time for engaging in meaningful conversations – in person as much as possible, since non-verbal cues convey at least as much as words.

I use cross-generational conversation workshops and forums to get people curious about each other in a non-threatening environment, first taking that curiosity out of the day-to-day work surroundings, and then embedding it back with lessons learned and a new perspective. My approach came to me naturally from my own curiosity. The conversation starts and is maintained by establishing empathy and trust.

In my work with professional firms on marketing and business development, I realized in the late 1990s that young people were not getting the attention they needed because the senior people were too busy. I started “next generation” programs for mid-level professionals with junior partners in law and accounting firms.  At first the idea was to bring together people who didn’t regularly work together to familiarize them with each other’s expertise and demonstrate that they could trust their peers to provide knowledge and great service to clients who needed expertise beyond their own. This effort resulted in new marketing relationships and sometimes co-developing new areas of practice. Then I got senior management talking with junior professionals in a special series of meetings so they would understand what was expected of each other and engender trust and confidence. It was a revelation to senior management and a success on both sides.

Here are some tips for delivering great service smoothly and rewarding working relationships through establishing empathy and trust: Give advice respectfully and strategically. Avoid condescending phrases.
Watch your tone and attitude. If there is discomfort or tension, try to talk about it and co-create a solution.



Build a Culture of GENgagement

When advising leadership teams about building a culture of GENgagement, what top three items do you share?

Leadership should provide the following ingredients of GENgagement and incorporate them into the organizational culture: Define the big picture for everyone and have a clear purpose and mission so they understand the importance of their role in the organization and those it serves.
Live a culture that respects the values of and promises to employees, clients, donors, alumni, etc. every day. And enable multigenerational input to organizational and market strategy and service delivery. A sustainable long-term business needs planned continuity.

To reiterate, you, your organization and your colleagues stand to gain from GENgagement and meaningful cross-generational conversation at work: market intelligence, new skills, new business niches, star talent retention, and smooth transitions of leadership internally and with clients and other external stakeholders. Which of those benefits do you not want?


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