Most managers with a sizeable span of control are likely to encounter a variety of generations to engage on a daily basis. One is probably your generation, the others will often represent younger and older employees, each representing a world view, set of life experiences, attitudes toward work and play, and sense of what career-progression and success actually means that differs in various ways from yours. So who do you talk to on a regular basis?
The obvious right answer if your boss asks you this question is “everybody”. But do you and do you talk to them all in the same way? “How are things going”, “how you do-in”, or “what’s up”, is not actually talking to anybody. Such phrases are simply making small talk, an invitation for simplistic answers like “fine” or “great”, and most subordinates view them this way.
Really talking, as I mean it, is a dynamic process involving active engagement, especially listening. It assumes from the start that two people may not know the same things or see things in exactly the same way, and that trying to understand each other’s point of view and the reasons behind it is the goal of the conversation. Such talking takes time, involves eye contact, affirmative gestures and expressions that indicate one is hearing, and all of this can not be faked. We know when what we are saying in response to someone is going in one ear and out the other.
So are you really talking across the generations represented by your subordinates? I believe it is important, as a manager, that you do so for at least there important reasons.
First, real, interactive conversations with your subordinates regardless of their generation are the key to making sure that every subordinate feels valued and that their contribution to your organization is appreciated. Real conversations allow all your subordinates — young, in between, and old — to express their views with the belief that they will be seriously considered. For many of them this is the key to feeling that they are a regular player in your organization’s most important activities and over time, having these conversations contributes considerably to unit morale.
Second, real, interactive conversations with all your subordinates, regardless of their generational cohort, offers you the opportunity to get smarter about almost anything. Such conversations open up new perspectives based on different work and life related experiences, and they offer you an optic on situations and challenges that might never have crossed your mind.
In an earlier blog/book review I entitled “The Net Generation Revealed”, I referred to a set of behavioral norms that appears to generally characterize this generational cohort: freedom, customization, scrutiny, integrity, collaboration, entertainment, speed, and innovation. Just imagine how the work world looks to this broad generational swath and how it might inform your management challenges. Agreement is not the point; learning, understanding, and considering is.
Another generational cohort that is often overlooked, especially by younger managers, is those subordinates over 50; the old timers. They are easily stereotyped as conservative, tradition-bound, risk-adverse, stuck in the past, and allergic to change. Well perhaps some of them are but that does not mean they all are, nor does it preclude the value of their perspective on many things. It is difficult to maximize the contribution of any subordinate to your work challenges if their perspectives and input is consistently ignored.
Which brings me to the third reason you should be having real, interactive dialogs with all your subordinates: as their manager, you are in the best position to bridge generational gaps by facilitating the sort of collective, cross-generational exchange of ideas that characterize a creative and innovative workplace. As you role model open-mindedness, active listening, respectful consideration of differing views, and a willingness to have your views and decisions shaped by what you hear, you establish a collaborative standard for your subordinates to follow. When you must counsel a close-minded subordinate to be more open to what his or her colleagues have to say, your feedback will carry considerably more credibility and weight.
The best managers never lose sight of the value and potential contribution each of their subordinates — regardless of age — has to make. They personally isolate no one and work hard to ensure that communication gaps that may occur among their subordinates are effectively bridged.