by Claire Raines
This article is an excerpt from Connecting Generations: The Sourcebook by Claire Raines.
Sorting the Cards | Synergism | Stir-Fry | Diversity Interviews at DTE Energy | Generations Interview | Generational Awareness: 10 Bright Ideas | Diversity Awareness: 5 Bright Ideas | Benefits of the Multi-Generation Work Team | Q&A
Generations: a diversity issue. The generation we belong to is one of the many differences we may have with our coworkers. Those differences can cause stress, discomfort, conflict, and frustration. They can also become a source for creativity and productivity.
One of our trainers, Karl Krumm, got me to thinking about generational differences as one of a variety of ways to sort cards. If you had a deck of playing cards in front of you right now, you could sort the cards by suit. You could sort them by color. You could sort them into face cards and numbered cards. You could sort them by numerical value. This metaphor has been helpful to me in how I think about businesspeople and the issues they face. Play along here. If your coworkers were a deck of cards, you could sort that deck in all kinds of ways. You might want to split the deck into two stacks—one for men, one for women. You could separate them according to ethnic background. You might stack the deck according to sexual orientation. You could sort according to coworkers’ countries of origin. You could make sixteen piles that represent the Myers Briggs™ types.
Karl, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a student of human nature, believes—and I think he’s right—that each time you sorted the cards and then explored the ways the stacks were different from and similar to the others, along with the ways all the cards in a stack were similar to each other, you would get helpful information that would give you valuable insights about every card. Of course, sorting the cards would never give you a picture of the complete person; individual human beings are way too complex for that. But if you’re interested in people and how to work more effectively with them, we’re certain you’ll find the generational sort to be an extremely valuable one. The ability to relate effectively to all types of people is one of today’s essential leadership skills.
To add another metaphor, we can use generational lenses to help us see things we might otherwise not notice. By the way, I don’t personally find that I go around in my own life wearing my generational lenses all, or even most, of the time. The breakdowns and misunderstandings that concern me the most—an endangered friendship, a miscommunication with a family member, a frustrated associate—these generally have little or nothing to do with generational differences.
I have, however, found hundreds of situations in which generational lenses made all the difference. A team I worked with—all Boomers and one Xer—was able to approach work issues from a whole new perspective. A successful trucking company decided they wanted to remain a World War II-style company, even though they probably won’t attract many Gen X recruits. A hospital changed to a more successful fundraising campaign that targeted new young donors. A manager quit trying to impose her values on her younger associates when she realized their customers were unfazed by nose rings and tattoos. A 50-year-old woman developed more empathy for her “military-style” dad. An executive began to understand where his estranged son might be “coming from.”
There are lots of situations that aren’t generational in nature, but then there are plenty that are, too. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep those “generational lenses” handy so they’re available when you need them.
It seems like just a few years ago, most companies in the Western world operated on the model that the best organization was made up of ranks of similar, like-minded people. Orientation sessions and training programs sought to clone the best and brightest existing employees. I remember seeing a couple of surveys that showed the typical interviewer tended to hire the person who was most similar to him- or herself. Some organizations even became known for the same-colored shirts everyone was expected to wear. It was a manufacturing model in which the company was judged on its success at churning out consistent carbon copies of human capital.
Synergism is a term popularized by Buckminster Fuller. Like the principle of yin/yang which has been known for centuries in the Eastern world, synergism recognizes that when we include divergent perspectives, the sum is greater than its parts. That, when a team includes people from various ethnic backgrounds, and all those perspectives are utilized, the team is more effective. That, when the marketing group incorporates people from all the generations, its campaigns are more successful. That, when the executive board includes men and women and listens to both perspectives, the board’s decisions will be more sound.
When it comes to diversity, our nation and most of its businesses have historically operated on the melting pot theory. It was great for forming a country, but it’s time for a new metaphor. After all, when you melt everything down, it gets mixed together and it into a mass of gray sludge. The different groups lose their uniqueness. Everything becomes uniform and we lose that variety of perspectives. Potential goes untapped.
I think it works better to think of corporate diversity as a stir-fry where the cook adds a variety of things—genders, generations, ethnicities. Each retains its uniqueness and contributes flavor to the whole dish. Something wonderful is created that is far tastier, more nutritious, and more interesting than any one part. To lose even one ingredient would diminish the texture and taste.
Today’s most effective organizations don’t just tolerate diversity. They seek it out. They go looking for people of all nationalities, political beliefs, backgrounds, ages, and genders. It’s not always easy, because differences are often thought of negatively, as in, “We’ve had our differences.” Says Tom Crum, “Conflicts can be disastrous or miraculous, depending on how you react to them.”
(The Magic of Conflict, Touchstone Press, 1987) Differences become miraculous when we appreciate them and utilize them. A BP Amoco employee document sums it up: “The diverse people who are BP Amoco will increasingly make our company distinctive by continually challenging how we think, what we do, and how we do it to achieve exceptional business performance.”
Today’s best companies create competitive advantage by becoming employer of choice—by being the company all the best people want to work for. This requires a work culture that recognizes and appreciates a variety of perspectives, styles, and opinions—where differences are sought out, valued, respected, and put to use. Business success requires a workforce that is educated about diversity, where associates have developed their awareness and appreciation for differences and have learned useful skills for bridging the gaps and tapping into the best of everyone.
To broaden their knowledge of the experiences and
beliefs of people from other races and cultures, and to identify ways
to support those people, participants in a class called
Diversity for Leaders at Detroit Edison interview someone of
a race or ethnic group different from their own. They share the
responses—not the names—in their session.
Here are the interview questions:
- What do you like about your ethnic group or race?
- What do you wish other ethnic groups understood or knew about your group?
- Do you feel all your work-related talents and skills are used on the job?
- What are the challenges you face at work that may have to do with your race/culture/ethnicity?
- What can a company leader, supervisor, or coworker do to support you?
Senior Diversity Specialist Nikki Moss developed the class and the interview format. She shares these excellent tips for expanding your diversity learning experience:
- To conduct the interview, treat your interviewee to lunch at a restaurant she feels is representative of her culture.
- Ask the interviewee to recommend a museum, business, or art gallery representative of his culture. Consider going there together.
- Ask to attend a worship service with her at her place of worship.
- Be ambitious and conduct interviews with people from a number of cultures.
- Go beyond race and interview someone differently-abled
than you or someone of a different sexual orientation.
A similar interview could be conducted with a member of another generation:
- What generation do you generally consider yourself to be a member of?
- What do you like about your generation?
- What do you wish other generations knew or understood about your generation?
- Do you feel all your work-related talents and skills are used on the job?
- What challenges do you face at work that may have to do with your generation?
- Successful businesspeople tap into the resources of a diverse workforce.
- Is there a Generation Xer on your Board of Directors? How about a Millennial?
- Will many of your best people be retiring in the next few years? Is your process for building “bench strength” under way?
- Do you have close working relationships with at least one person from each generation?
- Have a Generational Awareness Week. Post icons and photos that represent the generations. Include slang and popular expressions. Play music that was popular in each generation’s formative era.
- Write four versions—one for each generation—of an Employee Value
Proposition, a list of what is attractive about working for your organization.
- Review your benefits package, asking yourself which generation would likely be most attracted to each…which perks are attractive to all generations.
- Come up with three rewards specific to each generation.
- Do a generational diversity audit for your
organization. What percentage of your workforce is from each generation? Are all the generations represented at all levels?
- Review the makeup of your Board of Directors. Are you getting the perspectives of all the generations?
- Become an expert on a generation other than your own. Find someone twenty years older—or younger—to teach you about his or her generation: history, characteristics, language, work preferences.
- Watch a movie that focuses on a generation other than your own
(The Big Chill, Reality Bites, Office Space, Saving Private Ryan.) Step into the perspective of one of the characters. How might you see things differently if you were a member of the generation being featured?
- Examine a “difference” from both sides. Begin by thinking of a conflict you are having/have had with someone with whom you have generational differences, and with whom you would genuinely like to have a better relationship. Write a brief paragraph about how you see the situation. Put it aside for a few minutes. Then reread what you wrote. Next, re-examine the situation and see if you can step into the other person’s shoes. Finally, write a paragraph that might reveal his or her perspective.
- In a management meeting, create profiles of four ideal managers—one for each generation. Then, ask participants to survey five employees each about the type of manager they prefer. In the meeting, discuss your findings and revise the profiles, if necessary. What do all the profiles have in common? Where do they differ? How can your managers apply what they’ve learned?
Here are some similar ideas for increasing awareness, empathy, and understanding about other areas of diversity:
- Host cultural awareness weeks for all the countries of origin represented in your employee base.
- Do a cultural diversity audit for your organization.
- Review the makeup of your Board of Directors. Is it representative of your employee base? Of the community you serve?
- Become an expert on a culture represented by one of your coworkers.
Watch a movie that focuses on a culture (ethnicity, country of origin, disability, sexual orientation) other than your own. Get a recommendation from someone representative of that other culture about a movie they’d recommend that would help you better understand their culture.
- When differences are encouraged, productivity and creativity increase.
- The team can attract and retain talented people of all ages.
- The team is more flexible.
- The team can gain and keep greater market share because its members reflect a multi-generation market.
- Decisions are stronger because they’re broad-based.
- The team is more innovative.
- The team can meet the needs of a diverse public.
One of my young employees wants to take time off when he and his wife adopt a baby. I’ve never had a male employee ask for this before. Is this a generational thing?
I think so. The oldest Baby Boomers were deeply involved in the women’s movement. The next generation tends to have feminist men and women! Many Gen X fathers feel that parenting is a 50/50 deal. I think it’s totally cool that he wants to spend time with the new baby (Easy for me to say when I don’t have to find someone to take his place on the job, isn’t it?). I think we’ll be seeing more and more of this kind of thing.