By Colleen Kettenhofen

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. – George Orwell

With people retiring later, it is now common for many generations to work together in the same office. Each generation has lived and worked during different periods in history which has influenced how they approach their careers. Since everyone has a different perspective, this diversity will often make communicating a challenge among all the groups. As you learn more about these preferences, it will become easier for you to understand your colleague’s point of view and work more efficiently with them.

Let’s start by defining the different generations by their birth years:

Silent Generation (1925-1945)

Common Traits: Hard working, loyal with great respect for authority and seniority

Preferred Methods of Communication: Face to face contact with limited email and phone

Work Style: Dedicated to their job during office hours but won’t take their work home

Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Common Traits: Optimistic, believes in teamwork, fresh perspectives and bigger picture

Preferred Methods of Communication: Mostly telephone and some email

Work Style: Works long hours, heavily identifies with careers which allows for less work/home balance

Generation X (1965-1980)

Common Traits: Focuses on goals, multi-tasking, self-reliant, enjoys freedom and flexibility

Preferred Methods of Communication: E-mail, mobile phone

Work Style:   Wants the flexibility to work both at the office or home to get the job done

Generation Y / Millennials (1980-2000)

Common Traits: Confident, technologically savvy, values flexibility, personal relationships and feedback

Preferred Methods of Communication: Email, instant messaging and texting

Work Style: Likes to feel empowered with the ability to do their job anywhere without set office hours


Generational Style is Not One Size Fits All

After reading through your generational traits you might find that you do not fit into one particular category. Even though living during a certain time period can influence your approach to life it doesn’t take into account all of your life experiences. Many things can influence you including family dynamics and educational pursuits. If you want effective communication between generations in the workplace then you have to consider all these factors. Most often you will find that many traits do accurately describe the generational group but it’s not a guarantee. For example, you could have a Baby Boomer who loves texting and a Millennial who prefers face to face meetings. Consequently, when you base your opinion strictly on a person’s age, this is a great disservice everyone. Stereotyping will only hinder your ability to effectively communicate because it doesn’t consider the entire character of the individual.

Discover Your Generational Style Bias

Most often we will have a bias for our generational style. As this provides a built in commonality that helps us relate to each other. While it is understandable that we may be more comfortable with people who experienced life events at the same time we did, this can also be extremely limiting. Being aware that our tendencies go in this direction is the first step to expanding our perspectives.  One way we can challenge our bias is to look for opportunities to meet people who do not fit into our normal comfort zone. One setting might be a technical conference that features speakers from different generations. You could listen to these presentations and ask questions afterwards. Not only would you get to observe how they interact with other people you would also get the chance to practice your communication skills in a neutral setting. This becomes much easier than trying techniques in your work environment where mistakes can be made.

Find Common Ground for Communicating Effectively

Every person has their preferred method of communicating and uses the one that is easiest for them. Some people want to meet in person; others enjoy telephone conversations or detailed email. The best way to effectively communicate with someone in a different generational group is to compromise by finding their preferred method and defer to that style. Many times you will also find an overlap of communication preferences that you both enjoy utilizing. Whatever approaches you take remember your goal is to use a communication method that works the most efficiently. Discuss with your co-worker that you are trying to achieve to ensure projects are finished faster. Once you are in agreement, encourage the other person to occasionally try various communication techniques. This will not only help them to expand their generational comfort zone but also create a more cooperative work environment.

Plan Your Communication Strategies Carefully

Old habits can be hard to break when you are trying a new communication technique. If we are used to conducting face to face meetings and want to embrace texting it could become frustrating at first. Your old way of doing things will be very tempting because it is easier to do. Resist being lured back by reminding yourself that your goal is to expand your communication techniques not limit them. A good strategy only works if it can be used by everyone. Remember that reverting back to a technique that is only comfortable for you won’t get the results you need. By showing others that you are willing to meet them where they are, you’ll gain more credibility as a team player versus someone who only cares about their interests.   If you find that you need help to effectively use a new communication technique ask someone to give you their expertise. When you put in this extra time and energy to communicate effectively, your efforts will be appreciated and collaborations will strengthen over time.

Get Feedback on Your Communicating Efforts

As you try different communication techniques, ask for feedback from the people who are receiving your messages. There is nothing worse than sticking with a technique that you think is great and then you find out months later it hasn’t been working at all. Unfortunately, most people hesitate to give you this type of feedback because they would rather avoid unpleasant confrontations.  Give them the opportunity to give you constructive feedback that will make your messages more appreciated. Ask them specifically if they would prefer shorter or longer meetings, phone calls or messages. Find out what type of information is the most helpful to them and if they are getting it when they need it. By soliciting this type of feedback you are demonstrating that you really care about the quality of your communication and don’t just want to fill their time with unnecessary information.

Communication between generations in the workplace will take time to perfect but with patience and understanding you will gain a more dynamic and productive work environment.


About Colleen Kettenhofen, Leadership Expert, Motivational Speaker

CREDENTIALS: Colleen Kettenhofen is an international workplace and employee management expert, award-winning corporate trainer, and motivational keynote speaker. A media veteran, she has appeared on numerous radio shows around the country and has written more than 40 popular articles on diverse workplace issues. Colleen has delivered more than 1,100 entertaining programs in 48 states and five countries. She is the author of 10 published audio programs and two books including SECRETS YOUR BOSS ISN’T TELLING YOU.

Colleen Kettenhofen is available for keynotes, breakout sessions, and seminars by calling (971) 212-0479 in Portland, Oregon.