A Generation Y employee was reprimanded by her boomer-era boss because of the casual way she talked to the president of their firm. You see, this employee spoke to the president the same way she spoke to the receptionist, and believed that treating all of the office staff the same way was a sign of respect; however, her more seasoned boss was horrified by her lack of etiquette and justly let her know.
This scenario points to the difficulty of navigating generational differences in the office, and also to the importance of learning to work effectively with co-workers of all ages. “Generational differences have been named as a major concern in office settings,” says career expert and cofounder of SixFigureStart Caroline Ceniza-Levine. “This is the first time we have four generations in the workplace. Each generation has different defining events, attitudes toward work, communication styles, and other differences that naturally pose challenges in close settings like the office.”
The good news is that young women can bridge the generation gap. Here’s how.
Know what’s in it for you. Overcoming difficult tasks is easiest when you understand the benefits. Fortunately, there’s a long list of motivators for improving multigenerational office relationships. “A successful career is relationship-driven. You need mentors to guide you, a network of colleagues at all levels to tap into the hidden job market of internal and external opportunities, and peers to support you,” says Ceniza-Levine. What’s more, younger staffers can use these relationships to learn more about their company, while more established women gain insight into current trends and technological advancements.
Find common ground. Multigenerational relationships improve dramatically when you find a way to connect with an older or younger crowd. “Topics such as diet, clothing, cooking, men, movies, TV, and hair never grow old,” says Katherine Crowley, coauthor of Working With You Is Killing Me. Better acquaint yourself with co-workers by discussing these everyday topics over lunch or a coffee break. And if the conversation transitions to work, act curious—not threatened—by your colleague’s background and experience. “Your interest will quell their anxiety,” says Crowley.
Think like them. Different generations communicate in specific ways, so learning to adapt to an older or younger colleague’s style plays a key role in improving your relationship. Start by asking co-workers how they prefer to be contacted: Do they like calls, e-mails, or face-to-face chats? Do they like to get regular updates on projects or do they want you to touch base only after you’ve completed them?
Next, start studying your co-worker’s values and work ethics closely—they’re more similar to yours than you think. “All generations share similar values—they just express them differently, and that’s what causes issues,” says career coach Elene Cafasso. “For instance, older generations honor their family values by working long hours, being a good provider, keeping a job, and funding a college plan. Younger folks honor their family values by working more flexible or less hours, and spending more time with the family. They place the emphasis on being there for them versus doing for them. It’s the same value, just a different expression.”
Don’t count them out. To improve office relations, younger women must value the experience of their elders in the office. This is especially important for women who are managing an older staffer. “When managing an older person, be sure to solicit their opinion. Give them recognition for their unique contributions. Bounce things off of them,” says Cafasso. “It’s very easy to show a person you value them without taking a lot of extra time or effort, or feeling like you’re kissing up to them. And you might learn something in the process.”