Communication in the workplace is challenging enough under the best of circumstances, but in workplaces that can have as many as four generations struggling to communicate with each other, even simple exchanges can result not only in miscommunications, but in misunderstandings that can create serious problems.
One person who has given this problem a lot of thought is Dana Brownlee, a corporate trainer and management consultant whose background in technology includes stints at AT&T Bell Labs, IBM Global Services and EMC. In a recent interview on the topic of multigenerational communication issues in the workplace, I asked Brownlee if, in light of her technology background, she had any sense of whether these issues are more or less prevalent in an IT organization, compared to other organizations.
“My experience has been that IT is such a rapidly developing field, that there's a Darwinian effect that forces anyone who's successful in the field to change, learn, and adapt, early and often,” she said. “As a result, I've tended to see less of these generational communication issues in IT. I'm sure there are exceptions, but that's my general observation.”
The problem, Brownlee said, often surfaces when communicating with someone of a different generation outside of IT, and she shared an entertaining anecdote to illustrate her point.
“A good friend of mine has been a physician for about 15 years, and is highly accomplished, but I was shocked one day when he called me while typing something at work and asked me how to ‘make the letters look fat,’” she said. “It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about, and it finally hit me that he was just asking how to bold something. I had to walk him through point-and-click for bold.”
Brownlee said she had to laugh to herself, because when she was in her 20s and working as an intern at Bell Labs, she had to “bold the hard way” by learning troff and vi. So she said she was blown away that someone so brilliant needed help with something so simple.
“The simple fact was that he was nearly 50, missed the Microsoft Office boom during his academic years, and worked in health care his entire career. His industry didn't require, or possibly even encourage, adapting to technology,” she said. “In IT companies, the culture and practical skill requirements are so different that I just don't think that the older workers there are representative of older workers in other industries.”
Regardless of the industry, given that people in the older generations tend to be senior to, and often the managers of, people in the younger generations, I asked Brownlee what advice she might have for a young person whose boss prefers modes of communication that the young person might see as outdated, cumbersome and inefficient.
“I prefer they adapt,” she said. “I actually coach everyone to try to customize their mode of communication to the intended receiver to maximize their communication effectiveness, irrespective of who they’re communicating with. But if it's your boss, I think that's a no-brainer.”
If you know that someone is a phone person, just call him, Brownlee said.
“Having said that, if you see opportunities to create efficiencies for the entire team, or increase market share or customer satisfaction via alternate communication methods,” she said, “by all means make those suggestions, and volunteer to spearhead a task force to do some of the initial leg work.”
Finally, Brownlee offered some communication ground rules for the multigenerational workplace:
- Agree to "no email volleyball." If an email goes back and forth on a subject more than X times, one party must pick up the phone to discuss.
- Adopt the "repeat it back" practice for difficult conversations or task assignments, where each party has to repeat back what the other said to confirm understanding.
- Adopt the three magic questions of task assignment, where the person receiving the task answers the following once it's been assigned: his understanding of the task; what the final deliverable will actually look like; and what the first three steps will be as work on the task begins.
- Every other month, ask a team member to demo a new communication tool or medium she thinks is cool and would be helpful to the team—social media, wikis, collaborative workspaces, etc.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.