Generational Communication in the Workplace

Generational Communication in the Workplace

So much has been written about generational differences in the workplace.
And maybe you feel like you’ve read half of it already. People will argue every possible side of the issue — that generational differences divide us, or that they’re just a myth, or they’re not as big a deal as you think. It can make you wonder, do generational differences in the workplace really matter?
The short answer is yes, they do.
At a minimum, there’s no question the differences between generations can cause communication misunderstandings. Those misunderstandings can breed conflict, and conflict means drama — and, as I like to say, drama is the mission killer.
So why is it our differences get all the attention? It’s because they’re often the issues that cause the most trouble. But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, we’re all just people. Yes, we have different experiences and we’re shaped by the different time periods in which we’ve grown up but we ultimately tend to want very similar things.

We all want things like communication, respect, and purpose, which means the key to helping our multigenerational workplaces get along could be getting ourselves out of the generational mindset that created the conflict in the first place.
Sometimes we focus so much on our differences that we forget to look at how much we have in common. So why don’t we stop fretting about generational conflicts and talk about how we can collaborate?

There are several key areas in which generations are similar:

  • Value Structure – the values that matter most, i.e., family, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness


  • Wanting Respect – even with slightly different definitions, we all still want to be heard and valued for our contribution


  • Trustworthy Leaders – without trust, relationships falter, communication stops, and productivity is lost


  • Nobody Likes Change – the stereotype says that Millennials love change; my research shows the opposite, and that no one generation is more comfortable than the others


  • Loyalty – not a function of age, but a function of position in the organization; the higher the position you hold, the more time you work


  • We All Want to Learn – people want to do a good job and are willing to acquire new skills to do so


  • Everyone Likes Feedback – we want to know how we are doing comparatively


If we strive for common ground by understanding each other’s unique methods of communication, we will have a much better chance of building valuable relationships that impact culture and the bottom line.


Whether you’re a manager or co-worker, here are some guidelines for how each of the generations prefers to communicate and be communicated with:

Traditionalist (born 1922-1944)

  • Traditionalists respect authority, put duty before fun, strictly adhere to rules, and tend to lead with a command-and-control style.
  • They’re very direct and prefer to be communicated to formally and through the written word (think: memos).
  • They take satisfaction in doing a job well, so make sure that you share with them how much you respect their experience.
  • When it comes to providing feedback, no news is good news, so only approach them with something that is paramount to their performance.


Baby Boomer (1945-1964)

  • Baby boomers are known to be workaholics. They desire high quality in their products and services and aren’t afraid to question authority.
  • They want to be collegial leaders, so working with them as a team member is relevant and valuable.
  • Communicate with them in person but try to avoid long meetings – one-on-one is best unless you are at a networking event.
  • Boomers work to live, so to effectively communicate with them, discuss their work more than their personal lives.


Generation X (1965-1979)

  • Individuals born between 1965 and 1979 want structure and direction and are often skeptical of the status quo.
  • Because X’ers view everyone as equal, feel free to challenge them and communicate directly. Having an open and frank conversation immediately after an event is more impactful to them than waiting until it becomes a distant memory.
  • They like hearing feedback, so give it freely, but also remember that autonomy is important to them, so inspect what you expect.
  • To fire up small talk, get them talking about the charities they support.


Millennials (1980-1996)

  • Millennials are always wondering about what is next. They are diverse, goal oriented, and feel comfortable with multitasking, so feel free to create participative conversations.
  • It’s a well-known fact that millennials like to communicate electronically, including SMS/text messages, e-mails, and social media posts (when appropriate).
  • They want their work to be meaningful, so provide feedback continually and put them on teams with other bright and creative people.


With a minimum of four generations in your workplace, you can be sure you’ll encounter plenty of miscommunications and misunderstandings. As a leader, it is your job to wade through the distraction, improve your verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and focus on validating the other person’s experience in that moment. Validation helps to stop the fight before it begins and takes the defensiveness out of the equation. That builds trust.

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About the Author

As Director of AEU LEAD, Joe White focuses on helping members transform operational goals into actionable plans through a structured change management process. Prior to joining AEU, Joe was a senior consultant for E.I. DuPont’s consulting division, DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS). He joined DSS in 2011 to develop the next generation of safety practices using extensive research in behavioral sciences he’s compiled over a period of nearly two decades. His efforts resulted in the development of The Risk Factor, which is now the flagship instructor-led offering for the consulting division. Combined, Joe has 26 years of operational safety experience, the majority of which was with DuPont. Joe has been published in Occupational Health & Safety Magazine for his prominent work in safety relative to behavioral and neurosciences and is an event speaker at many leading industry conferences including National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expos, American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and National Maritime Safety Association (NMSA). Joe is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and has a B.S., in Safety and Risk Administration.

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