Tech & Work

10+ ways to minimize generational differences in the workplace

If you're having a tough time communicating with co-workers who are much younger or older than you are, take heart: These tips can help you close the generation gap.

Boomers... Gen Xers... Millennials... Gen Zs. All of these types of people are probably in your workplace. Communicating with people within your own age group presents a significant challenge. Among different age groups, this challenge increases even more.

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1: Focus on similarities rather than differences

Half-empty or half-full?

Your perspective influences the way you approach things. Saying to yourself, "We have too big an age range and we will never be able to work things out" simply invites defeat. On the other hand, saying to yourself, "Yes we do have a big age range, but we all want and need to succeed, so we have to work things out" projects a far more positive outlook.

I'm not saying you have to do group hugs and sing songs every day. Just realize that you're in this situation together. Just as a single body has different parts, so too does an organization have workers of different ages. Like it or not, they have to work together for the organization to succeed.

2: Recognize that change does occur

Rare is the company or IT department that still uses 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, green monochrome displays, or 3270-type dumb terminals. Those who still do — that is, those who fail to accept or adopt new technology — risk becoming obsolete.

If you belong to one of the older age groups, you might be more resistant to newer technologies. But unless you adapt, you may be left behind. On the other hand, you may have experience that transcends changes in technology. Even though you have worked with older technology, principles you learned might still be adapted to the new technology.

3: Recognize the value and the perils of the "tried and true"

  • Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
  • Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal...

No, these two sayings do not contradict each other. The first suggests that we learn from the past. The second suggests that we avoid becoming mired in the past.

Your older co-worker might not really believe that "older is always better," despite what you might think. If so, there might be a problem. However, learning from the old ways, keeping the useful, and changing or eliminating the less useful will benefit you and the organization.

4: Be aware that "new" technology may not be

  • What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

The author of this passage died long before the National Football League was created. Nonetheless, had he been able to watch, he might have been happy to see how true his words were. For example, one of the main features of offense in the past few years has been the wildcat formation. You might see it used during a game and think, "Wow, what a novel idea." But if your grandfather is watching with you, he might say instead, "Ha, they're using the single wing formation again!" Or let's say you're watching American Idol. Your grandmother sits down beside you and says, "Reminds me of Ted Mack and the Amateur Hour. Your uncle joins you and says, "No way; it's more like The Gong Show."

What seems new really may not be. Your older co-worker might look at your thin client and say, "Hey, that's just like a 3270 'green screen.'" Or during your meeting about cloud computing, someone might say, "Sounds just like what John McCarthy and Douglas Parkhill were saying 50 years ago" — and that person would be right.

In other words, the "technology gap" may be smaller than you think. If you're looking at the younger worker's "new" technology, try to relate it by analogy to something you worked with before. If you looking at the older worker's "old" technology, try to find ways it mirrors what you're working with now.

5: Develop a curiosity for things unknown to you

  • He who ceases to learn is already half dead.

I already have discussed how important it is for older workers to learn new technology. The same applies to younger workers with respect to older technology. The more you understand about how computers worked in years past, the greater your appreciation for the way they work now. Furthermore, you might yourself saying, "So THAT'S why they do it this way."

The same applies to the leisure interests of that other age group. I know fewer than 5% of the songs my daughters listen to. But once I joked with them about why they should come with me to see George Strait in concert: I told them that his opening act was Lady Gaga.

6: Ask questions rather than make statements

Suppose you're one of the older workers and you think your younger co-worker's idea is totally useless. Or suppose you're one of the younger workers and you think likewise of your older co-worker's idea. Be careful about saying so. Even if you are right, the ill will that might result could prove harmful.

Instead, do what most great teachers do: Rather than teach (or state) the point, ask appropriate questions so that in answering those questions, the other person gets the point by him/herself.

If a co-worker suggests that the backup procedure should use only one set of tapes, you could say, "I see. What happens if the system dies in the middle of backup?" When the other person answers, "We will have a mixed-up set of tapes," you might continue, "How good is this set of tapes for doing a restore?" This approach is better than saying, "You fool, if the system dies, you have no good backup set remaining!"

7: Avoid characterizations based on age

If you have a disagreement with someone of a different age group, try to focus on the technical or work issues. Avoid thinking that the person holds that view simply because of his or her age. Furthermore, saying it out loud. Not only will that cause discomfort — it could put your company and you in legal trouble.

8: Define your acronyms

Acronyms always cause trouble when IT people speak with non-IT people. However, even within an IT department, acronyms can cause confusion if they mean different things to different people. It can be particularly confusing if different concepts arose at different periods of time. So, for example, if you refer to SAP, be clear whether you mean the enterprise software company and package, or a service access point.

9: Paraphrase before answering

Many disagreements really may not be. Paraphrasing before responding to a statement or question is especially important when discussing something with someone in a different age group. Make sure you are really addressing the other person's point, not your (possibly mistaken) view of that person's point.

10: Be careful about cultural or historical references

Using cultural references when speaking can add interest and can underscore your point. However, make sure that others will understand your references. You might use the term "space shuttle disaster" and mean the 1986 Challenger incident. Your listener, on the other hand, might be thinking instead of the 2003 Columbia incident, or vice versa.

11: If that other age-group worker was right after all, say so

  • When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.

    But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

    — Mark Twain

If that other person was right, say so. When you do, you create an opportunity to build cohesion. And if you are recipient of such a comment, take it graciously and not with an "I told you so" attitude.


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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