By Reed Richardson.
Some days it may feel like getting everyone in your small business to work together is a Herculean task. Even if your company consists of a handful of employees or just yourself and one other partner, there may be times when it seems like everyone else involved in your business is using a different playbook. It’s tempting to attribute this disorganized effort to differences in job functions—salespeople aren’t in sync with the operations staff, human resources doesn’t understand the needs of customer service—but there may be another major factor contributing to a company’s lackluster performance, one that small business owners in particular frequently overlook: generational differences.
A decade ago, understanding how generational differences affect productivity in the workplace was often dismissed as a frivolous, touchy-feely topic, says David Stillman, co-author of the book When Generations Collide. Now, however, he says more and more companies are realizing the very profound effect that the four generations currently comprising the U.S. workforce—Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millenials (see sidebar for demographic explanation)—can have upon their chances for success.
Understand the differences
“The basic rule of thumb for any business is to really understand how communication differences among the generations affect their bottom line,” Stillman says. Stillman, a 40-year-old Gen Xer, co-owns the business consulting firm BridgeWorks with Baby Boomer Lynne Lancaster, his co-author. He explains that different communication norms are often the root of conflicts in the workplace. And lest you think these differences among the four generations will simply disappear as more and more Boomers and Veterans quickly leave the workforce, take note of a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey that shows that a solid majority of older workers have remained in full-time positions even well after reaching the traditional retirement age of 65.
Shaped by wildly different times, experts note that these four generations generally communicate using different means, at varying frequencies, and with sometimes radically divergent expectations about feedback. They tend to have strikingly different expectations about the companies that they work for and what they want to achieve in their own careers as well. In a rapidly changing and increasingly global marketplace, this diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints (not to mention technological savvy) brings with it many advantages, to be sure. But it also brings a set of challenges that can be problematic, especially for small business owners.
Generations in isolation
“The chilling part for small businesses is that with a tiny workforce they could easily skew toward just one generation,” Stillman cautions. And those interests might not always line up with the long-term interests of the business. “Baby Boomers, for example, tend to be knowledge hoarders,” he notes. So, their expertise on how to, say, work around a production snafu or defuse an irate customer might never be passed on to the next generation of employees, he explains. To combat this, Stillman recommends that all companies undertake some kind of mentorship or knowledge sharing program. His business partner Lancaster agrees, adding, “The best way to foster this exchange of ideas and knowledge is to make the business case for it, to point out how it will help the bottom line and, thus, everyone will benefit.”
The lack of inter-generational interaction isn’t confined solely to Baby Boomers, however. In fact, a recent World of Work survey by the global staffing company Randstad found that the four generations rarely interact with each other in the workplace and often do not recognize each other’s skills or work ethic. And though the older of these two generations possesses the most knowledge and experience, the study found that a slight majority of Boomers and two out of three Veterans reported little or no meaningful contact with their youngest, 20-something colleagues. (You can download a PDF version of the study here.)
“The workplace is on the verge of real change,” noted Randstad managing director Eric Buntin in the survey. “By focusing on and encouraging the professional contributions of all employees, employers can help close the knowledge gap by instituting ways for each generation to recognize their strengths and value to all colleagues.”
Communication is the answer
The aforementioned formal mentoring programs are but one way to accomplish this. Particularly in small businesses, Stillman and Lancaster advocate a more informal approach, like simply gathering everyone together every few months to talk about how the company communicates, both internally and externally. “This shouldn’t be about fixing blame, but instead should be about asking ‘How can we do this better?’” explains Lancaster. Stillman adds, “you want to get past the ‘Back in my day’ anecdotes that set up an ‘us versus them’ mentality between generations, and instead get ideas flowing back and forth from old to young and young to old.”
This give and take will help businesses better recognize that good ideas may come from different generations and because of different motives. For example, Stillman relates a story about one company’s recent decision to switch to paperless billing. “The Millenials in the company triggered the change because they wanted to save trees and be greener,” he explains. “But, understanding what the older boss might value, the case they made to him was that it would save the company both postage and materials.” The boss acceded to their request, but only after adding a caveat born out of the wisdom of experience, one that the younger generation had overlooked. “The boss said that the each customer must be given the choice of opting out of paper bills before any switch could be made,” Stillman notes.
In the end, a firm grasp of how the four generations work and communicate can pay dividends in not only better teamwork and productivity, but also in improved company morale, employee retention, and more effective recruiting. And for small businesses looking to achieve these results, Stillman says the best way to begin is to first accept that generational differences exist and then, just as importantly, “embrace those differences.”