Cross-Generational Conversations

Back in the 1990s, author Phyllis Weiss Haserot began noticing that younger employees in law firms and accounting firms weren’t getting the attention they needed from senior leaders, whose busy schedules and shifting roles often prevented the development of effective mentoring relationships.

As president of Practice Development Counsel, a business-development and organizational-effectiveness consulting firm, Haserot developed programs that get different generations talking to each other in the workplace. As participants learned each other’s expertise and workstyles and developed more meaningful work relationships, the programs helped “solve sensitive intergenerational challenges that can hinder client relationships, productivity, knowledge transfer, succession planning and business-development results.”

She says she settled on the title of her book because learning about other generations in the workplace requires interaction with real people, not just with data.

“It’s about the relationships and the conversations you have with people you work with,” she says. “And you can’t Google that.” The book does, however, outline the traits and backgrounds of the different generations to encourage a broader understanding than a stereotypical model might present.

Of the five generations listed in her book–traditionalists (born 1925—1942), baby boomers (1943-1962), Generation X (1963-1978), millennials (1979-1995) and Generation Z (1996-2005)–the middle three make up the bulk of employees today, with most traditionalists retiring and younger gen Zers just entering the workforce.

Haserot recently spoke with HRE about encouraging cross-generational conversations and why it’s critical for helping both younger and older employees share their knowledge, and expertise and have a meaningful role in helping a company economically and culturally, no matter which stage of their career they are in.

[Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.]

In your book, you make a detailed business case for why cross-generational conversations and the resulting relationships benefit companies. Can you summarize why there are dangers in not getting the generations working better together?

They won’t benefit from the knowledge and insights that everybody has. You don’t have to be a certain age to have certain talents. In study after study, diverse teams are shown to be much more effective–and age diversity is part of that. You [also want older workers] to pass on relationships with clients, vendors and alliance partners to the next generation. You don’t want customers to walk out the door because the people with the best relationships are no longer in charge of things. If you do, your competition will be right there, going after your customers.

There’s a solid business case for developing younger talent. We have a multigenerational world and people have to be able to talk with one another. Plus, succession planning and knowledge transfer have just got to be done. To leave these until the last six months or [not get to do it at all] if people leave unexpectedly, it goes directly to the bottom line and how happy people are to stay with you. Turnover is very expensive. And, you’ll be losing a lot of your external stakeholders [as a result] and won’t be making the most of the talent you have.

What strategies should companies implement to achieve better generational cooperation?

First, you have to create a non-threatening environment [where people] don’t feel guilty if there’s a lack of conversation or if they have biases. Hold some initial conversations to find out what the issues are in a particular organization. If people are claiming that things are working well, have them collaborate on a problem in the company or in the wider world that they can work on to show how well things are working.

Companies can also hold Cross-Generational Conversation Days, which include some interactive presentations for those not familiar with the typical attributes of different generations.

Most of the time is spent on facilitating multigenerational discussions. From pre-work and interviews, come up with questions for groups of eight to 12 people who represent three to four generations. It’s about getting everybody in the group have their input. You can start out with something that is not terribly controversial and make it clear that no one’s job is dependent on their answers.

This might include discussions about what their views are on different generations. You can ask them, “What are the good things you have observed in a different generation than yours?” Be sure to hear the good things before the complaints. Also ask them, “Which would be the best generation to be the bridge among all the generations in your organization?” and “Who do you see as the influencers?”

Generally, we have found that once people sit down together, there isn’t any hesitancy to get involved in the conversation.

Then, you want to end up with action steps. One template we use is a form that people fill out and share so others have a kind of roadmap to understand them. People have different work styles and interests. Sharing that kind of information rarely happens if it’s not set up for them.

Finally, it shouldn’t be a one-shot thing. There should be quarterly, shorter sessions to continue the conversations.

What is the HR leader’s role in overcoming the generational divide?

HR leaders have to think about doing this training in a different way. They have to work hard on creating a nonthreatening environment for the conversations. They have to convince the people they report to that this is an important issue and it’s not a separate issue from [other diversity conversations]. Age is universal, which is one of the reasons I think it doesn’t get a lot of attention. Also, age discrimination is hard to prove, so the high cost is not so obvious.

Why do you think age differences haven’t been a big topic in diversity discussions before this, along with gender, race, LGBTQ and other issues?

It’s one of those things that is under the surface. Generational differences are greater than they used to be because change is happening so fast. Systems, processes and structures of organizations used to be pretty much sustained from decade to decade and from century to century. When baby boomers came into the workplace, that was the first time anyone paid attention to one group as a generation. They pretty much accepted the hierarchy and processes and then decided [over time] that they were going to change them from the inside. For example, in the professional-services area, they knew that if you could control the clients, they were going to be the ones who have a bigger say than the people who were just doing good work.

Today, we are seeing a lot of younger people leaping over the older generations. To some degree, it’s certainly warranted because the [Gen Xers and millennials] are educated with skills that older people don’t have.

There’s a lot of change in our society. Each generation works differently and has different needs and yet has to change faster. Taking time to think and reflect is getting less and less because there’s so much time pressure.

What do you hope this book will achieve?

I hope it will light a fire under the decision makers. When I get a chance to talk face-to-face with decision makers, they can see how the generation [focus] is really the missing piece that ties all the issues around diversity together. Different generational attitudes influence and inform how people view and behave in all aspects of how they work together. I decided to write the book because I know that good books can do the magic sometimes of getting attention for issues that are really important.

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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected]