The Silent Generation (aka Traditionalists), those born before 1946, still make up about 2% of the American workforce. It seems that a lifetime of grit and self-determination makes it hard to hang it all up and go sit on a beach somewhere. Baby Boomers, born between 1946-1964, make up 25% of the workforce. Generation X, 1965-1980, accounts for 33%. Millenials, or Gen Y, 1981-1996, make up 35%, and Gen Z, 1997-2012 are beginning to make their appearance in the office at 5%. But if you are a business leader, I wouldn’t ignore the impact that the youngest working generation could have on your organization. (I say working generation because those born after 2012 are only a decade away from jumping into the water themselves, we just haven’t named that group yet. My vote is Gen Alpha. If that term gets used, I want full credit.)
We have all heard the statistics about how Millenials have become the largest section of the workforce, but Generation Z accounts for over 25% of the nation’s population, and these two groups share a commonality that makes managing them a challenge: their love of technology. Generations Y and Z have grown up trusting technology to such a degree that navigating human interaction, especially in the workplace, can be a unique endeavor for them. As an expert in human interaction, I find this especially intriguing.
The first mistake any leader can make, especially leaders who are from an older generation, is to assume that, because younger generations communicate largely through digital means, they lack the ability for live interation. To assume so is ridiculous. Barring atypical mental conditions, every human brain is designed to interact best when eye contact, facial expressions, and non-verbal signals are present.
Rather than simply dismiss digital communication as inferior to live, business leaders must educate staff as to the advantages of each. Digital — Pros: allows the recipient flexibility as to when they respond, allows for better tracking of information, eases the pressure on the recipient to respond immediately, does not require coordinating schedules. Cons: Lacks emotion, does little to build or maintain relationships, high risk of misunderstanding meaning or intent. Live — Pros: better at resolving sensitive issues, builds relationships, more efficient use of time, easier for the brain to process. Cons: more difficult to coordinate schedules to meet, less comfortable for introverts.
Given the advantages of each style of communication, saying that one is superior to the other is like saying a hammer is better than a screwdriver. But what do you do when live communication is needed, and your staff is less than eager to engage? The difference between generations when it comes to technology vs. live communication comes down to three factors: familiarity, trust, and fear.
Familiarity: Too many leaders demand that employees pick up the phone or schedule in-person meetings without first giving the employee ample practice beforehand. Psychologists identify the three steps necessary to change human behavior as Awareness (first being aware a change is needed), Commitment (agreeing to make the change), and Practice (the opportunity to practice the new behavior in a safe environment before putting into practice in the real world). If you want staff to engage in live communication, set up practice sessions first. Throwing people in the water to sink or swim only works if they get to start at the shallow end of the pool.
Trust: It is reasonable for those who grow up trusting technology to distrust live communication. To overcome this, you cannot claim that live communication is always better. Discuss what is needed from communication at the time, and which method will deliver the best results. Trust is established when the reasons for an action are clear.
Fear: The one thing digital communication is best at is protecting the image of the sender. When you have all the time in the world to craft your message, you are safe. The greatest fear all humans share is looking foolish in front of others who matter to them. Take away the fear by first building the skills of face-to-face.
A balanced approach to these two means of communication—and an organized effort to build the skills needed for both—is the best way to capture the skills of every generation sharing your workspace.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.