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Blog: Is the Challenge Understanding Different Generations or Something Else?

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 It is almost impossible to open a business publication or business blog without seeing something about the generations at work. Often writers make it seem that all of your leadership and motivational problems will be solved once you understand and cater to the needs of "Millennials" or change your behavior and point of view and stop acting like a "Boomer".

A few years ago, one of my colleagues and I decided we wanted to explore the notion of generational conflict in the workplace. We conducted a study, using focus group methodology, to explore perceived differences between, specifically, Boomer and Gen X women in the workplace. The conversations, focusing on topics such as: jobs vs. careers,
 work life balance,
 sacrifices vs. choices,
role models,
personal fears and values,
and perceptions about the “other” group of women and the ease with which they can work together.

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The generation (Boomer) that said women could have it all is frequently burned out, bitter and left wanting in today’s marketplace. And their children, today’s Gen Xers, are moving right past them, armed with the skills and credentials Boomers most often lacked. These were somewhat surprising and discouraging findings. Since doing this work, I have been closely observing generational attitudes across gender—in my executive coaching and in consulting with organizations. I hear lots of “noise” about different groups: “Why can’t these old people understand that technology is everything and we don’t care what they did in the old days.” or “ young people have no regard for context and what happened in the past.” 

But I have also learned to listen more deeply and I have discovered a common grounding for all of these conversations and opinions. Respect. What is at the heart of each person’s need is a hope, a desire for respect: Respect for choices and sacrifices made, for knowledge and understanding acquired, for experiences that create diversity of thought.

If respect is the answer, the question becomes, how can an organization make that a cultural norm. From my experience, creating an atmosphere of respect is not something that can be mandated from the top down. It has to be something that each individual commits to and sees as an important business practice. And how does one show respect? Curiosity. Coming at each interaction with the willingness to ask questions: And not questions to make someone else wrong or to win a point. Questions that seek to understand and demonstrate a willingness to engage in healthy dialogue.

I believe that each of us a deep desire to be seen and to be understood and this is something that is very basic to the human condition. When we show curiosity and a willingness to understand, we are honoring the other person—their history, their experience, their point of view—and showing the richest kind of respect. 

To borrow, from Oprah, what I know for sure is that—by bringing a sense of curiosity and the resulting respect to each of our encounters—we can transcend generational differences and build a workplace where all diversity is honored and each (human) resource is valued and maximized.


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