Honing our Capacity to Navigate in the Labyrinth of  
Multi-Generational Complexity
©  Dr. Carolin Rekar Munro & Mike Thompson FCMC, and CMC Today 

One of the preeminent challenges we, as management consultants, grapple with is working in multi-generational workplaces. With five generations working alongside each other – Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y (Millennials), and Generation Z - we have witnessed not only a unique synergy of gifts and talents, but also a spike in workplace conflicts. 

These conflicts, stemming from generational differences in attitudes, priorities, expectations, and work styles are pervasive, persistent, and polarizing. They permeate all aspects of organizational life, and they chip away at relationships, affecting how we listen to and respond to each other. If left unattended, these conflicts seep into the bloodstream of an organization’s culture and threaten the sacred grounds of productivity, profitability, job satisfaction, and employee turnover. 

In the midst of this quandary is a call-for-action to you – CMCs who, at any stage in your career, can play an instrumental role in shaping how multi-generations work together. Offered in this article are some pragmatic tools you can apply to navigate the richness and complexity of communication in multi-generational workplaces. 

Fostering Generational Synchronicity
At the starting gate, we are encouraged to hone one of the most misunderstood competencies under the umbrella of communication - the ability to connect with others. As easy as this may seem, it is fraught with complexity. The ability to connect with others is a signature skill honed by management consultants who have achieved unimaginable heights personally and professionally. 

Connectivity has a magnetic quality which surpasses our ability to communicate well. It focuses on identifying with people authentically, deeply, and meaningfully, and it leaves us feeling enriched mentally, spiritually, and physically. When the person with whom we have connected is not in our midst, their absence is noticeable and disappointing.  

3 D’s of Connection-Crushing
Becoming better connectors begins with examining connection crushers – three behaviours we need to stop because they are perceived by all generations as counterproductive to connectivity:

Devaluing Others
One of the fastest ways to sabotage connecting well with others is to make people feel devalued in our presence. For the most part, we go through each day unaware of the relationship footprint we leave. Devaluing others, intentionally or unintentionally, often is the damaging outcome of our preoccupation with the incessant spin of activity in our lives. We become so fixated on our own agenda and consumed with completing the infinite number of tasks on our to-do-list, that we often brush aside and ignore many people. If people around us are not integral to our personal or professional mission, they unlikely get much, if any, of our attention. The feverish race through the day has become our norm; and, in many cases, our driving force, especially for those of us who equate the visibility of our ‘busyness’ with earning coveted career rewards. 

If people feel devalued in your presence, they are less likely to give you a chance to impress them with your knowledge, skills, and forward thinking. Long term, you have lost your ability to connect with them. This inability to connect with others is career suicide; there are few milestones in our careers that we can achieve without others.  

Dominating with an Overinflated Ego 
If we are not mindful, we might show up in conversations with a disproportionate sense of our own importance; and, as a result, we might dominate conversations. This shows up as overzealousness to showcase our expert knowledge and to prove to others that we are intelligent and worldly. When we are in this zone, we can end up talking at people about what we know and what we have done, instead of talking with people. 

People on the receiving end usually spend the entire conversation jockeying to make a point or retreating into passivity. Because it is too taxing to be in the presence of domineering conversationalists, people tend to avoid them. We are not attracted to, warm up to, or rally behind people who consume all the oxygen in the room. As a result, long-term connection is doubtful.  

Descending into Evaluative Language
Being cognizant of our internal dialogue is one of the primary determinants as to whether connections with others will be arms-length transactions or meaningful alliances. Our inner voice, with its web of values, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions, shapes our thinking, our speech and our behaviours. For the most part, we don’t realize the domino effect our private thoughts have on how we act and react to others, and how others experience us in conversation.

 When we show up with an evaluative presence, we can become a conversation crusher. We play the role of a critic who weighs in with judgment and criticism about others and the world around us. Spending most of our time in the evaluative arena and putting a rightness or wrongness spin on what we see or hear, shuts down our ability to learn new things about others and about the world. When evaluative people come together the conversation tends to divide and disengage them because, for the most part, they focus on finding fault, refuting the beliefs of others, and seizing centre stage to showcase their expert knowledge instead of leaving space for others to contribute. Once we are in the evaluative zone, it is hard to move out of it.

Evaluation can play a salient role. Reserve it for occasions when it makes a constructive contribution to organizational or personal change; for example, when a critique of a workplace policy or practice is required or when assessment of performance is expected. 

3 C’s of Connectivity
Refraining from connection crushers sets the stage for adopting behaviours which promote deep-seated connectivity, essential in dealing with the generational complexities of today’s workplace. 
Becoming a conversation connector in multi-generational workplaces starts with developing an inquiry-based approach to engaging with others. At the heart of an inquiry-based approach are curiosity and genuine interest in better understanding others and the world around us. We enter into dialogue with wonder about the world, and strive to comprehend others; regardless of how divergent their beliefs and values are from our own. This takes the form of:

  • asking more questions, instead of having all the right answers;
  • leaving space in conversations for others to share their stories rather than dominating with our own (when we talk, we reinforce what we know; when we listen, we learn);
  • listening to others by keeping all distractions in abeyance and showing interest in getting to know them;
  • listening for that which binds us rather than focusing on what divides us; and,
  • reserving our judgment and being unconditional in our regard for others.

Do you have the courage to show up perfectly imperfect in conversations with others? Do you show your authentic self, with its juxtaposition of confidence and insecurity, expertise and ignorance, and eloquence and incoherence? Some of you might be thinking that showing vulnerabilities is the seat of demise for us as professionals. In actuality, it is the opposite.  People don’t gravitate to our perfection; they gravitate to our brokenness. They are drawn to those of us who have the courage to show our foibles and warts. It is in this brokenness that people realize they share more in common than they thought imaginable. 

When you commit to even slight changes, there is a shift in how others engage with you. This is especially appealing as we exercise our leadership to close the generational divide in workplaces. Revealing more of our authentic selves enables us to find the universalities that have the power to unite us.  Hence, we are positioned to become the engaged, high-performing and productive teams that can slice through relationship-based challenges to reach organizational goals.

Cultivating Leadership 
Many of us wait for someone else to initiate conversations. If neither party musters the courage to make the first move, both parties run the risk of missing an opportunity to connect with someone with whom there might be unimaginable gains. For this reason, you go first; that is, you take the lead to introduce yourself and launch into conversation.  It doesn’t need to be a philosophical and big brain starter; lead with any topic which strikes you as an appropriate icebreaker. 
There will be occasions when you are in the presence of someone with whom you have nothing in common. As tempting as it is to plan your getaway, stay in the conversation and hold the polarities. Eventually, you might find a topic that excites both of you and you might discover partnerships in unlikely places. Imagine the possibilities for engagement, inclusivity and collaboration, if we can put differences about each generation in abeyance and stay in the sandbox of possibilities.

Conclusion or Beginning?
In order to grow to be effective in managing inter-generational connections, take time to reflect on what transpired in your conversations. 
What do you need to continue doing, stop doing, and start doing
With patience, commitment to doing things differently, and a willingness to be courageous and curious, you position yourself to be at the forefront of choreographing a culture of multi-generational unity. It’s just the beginning.

Dr. Carolin Rekar Munro, CPHR, CTDP, is Professor, Leadership (MBA, MA in Tourism Leadership, and BA in International Hospitality Management, Royal Roads University);  Adjunct Professor (MA Education, Central Michigan University), and visiting professor (MBA program, Mount Meru University, Tanzania). She also collaborates with leaders on employee re-engagement, leadership preparedness, and developing high performing teams through Eye of the Tiger Consulting, and she is co-owner of Monarch Safari Guides based in Tanzania.

Mike Thompson FCMC, FICB, is Associate Professor, Management Consulting with the Faculty of Management at Royal Roads University. Professional certifications include Fellow of Institute of Canadian Bankers (FICB) and Fellow Certified Management Consultant (FCMC).

Mike is an ICMCI Academic Fellow and was a CMC Global Trustee representing Canada for six years until 2016.  He also holds a visiting professor appointment at the Graduate School of Business, Grenoble, France and has co-authored a book titled ‘Business Diagnostics’, which takes company owners through a pragmatic and effective 'size up' process to gauge their corporate health.