Collaboration across the generation gap

Don’t like your coworkers’ old school (or newfangled) modus operandi? That doesn’t mean they’re jerks.

If headlines like “Millennials And Their Managers Don’t See Eye to Eye,” “Why Can’t Generation X Get Ahead at Work?” and “How to Reinvent the Workplace to Satisfy Boomers” are any indication, workplaces are deeply and unfairly divided along generational lines. When cries of “no fair” are coming from all sides, though, it begs the question, “Which group is actually getting the shaft, and which is behaving badly?”

The answer, while boring, may be “none of the above.”

“The fact is that generational differences are nothing new, and every generation has some squabble with the previous one. A lot of this is overblown,” says organizational psychologist Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, Ph.D.

When it comes to collaborating with colleagues of a different generation, Woodward says the real challenge is not bridging some monstrous divide, but simply understanding that a behavior that confounds you is not the same thing as a personal affront.

“When someone operates differently, it gives us pause, and people ascribe intent to that. Sometimes, it’s helpful to step back and understand why a person does what they do and work with it rather than against it.”

Fading formality

Still, there are differences between the generations, and Woodward says formality is a big one. It’s no secret that millennials and, to a lesser degree, Gen Xers are less formal than boomers, and that informality—whether expressed through dress or social media—can be a source of consternation for people of a certain age.

Woodward says, “Boomers tend to affiliate more
 strongly with their employers than their millennial counterparts, which 
means their ideas about expressing work-related opinions online differ
 quite a bit. Boomers tend not to have the same comfort level with the
 mouthpiece of social media and, therefore, may view the expression of opinion 
online as acting out or jerk-like behavior.”

And while that perception may be justified at times, it may be helpful for older workers to try and understand the worldview of their younger counterparts—a worldview hugely influenced by the Internet and social media like Facebook that encourage open sharing about all aspects of life.

Woodward says that this open expression and merging of life online plays itself out in the real world as well. “The younger generation is looking for the right blend—they are more about working to live than living to work.”

Increasing incivility

While it’s fun to point the finger at generational differences for bad office relationships, it may be that simple, ugly incivility is really to blame.

According to Weber Shandwick’s fourth annual look at Civility in America, 70 percent of Americans believe incivility in this country has reached epic proportions, and American offices are certainly seeing their fair share of jerks. Twenty-six percent of respondents said they had quit their job because of incivility at work, and 33 percent believe the tone of their workplace is uncivil.

Woodward says the trend is no surprise, given what we see every day on the news. “I think you could argue that we see it played out in front of us every day in politics during 24/7 news cycles. The low standard for behavior seems to make it acceptable to act out.”

A jerk can’t survive alone, however, and Woodward says both nature and nurture are to blame if one is thriving in your office habitat. “There is no doubt some people tend to be a bit more predisposed to boorish
 and uncivil behaviors than others. However, the environment and culture of 
your office have a lot to do with dictating which behaviors are acceptable 
and which are not.”

When you think about your business culture, think about the fundamental issues of compatibility, not superficial perks like office happy hours. In working toward common goals, hopefully we can all learn to recognize the difference between someone who is acting their age and someone who is just acting out of line (now there’s a person who deserves some bad press).

Post by Jill Coody Smits

Jill Coody Smits is an Austin-based freelance writer and proponent of research-backed communication. Interested in psychology, health, fitness, and human rights. Wife, mother, traveler, reader, dog-lover, unaccomplished athlete.