By Sarah Bergen
A workplace is full of a mixture of traditionalists, baby boomers, and millennials, all of whom prefer to communicate in different ways. And, yet, communication is at the core of a successful workplace — so how can people overcome these differences, or, at the very least, learn to use those differences to their advantage?
The Rider Women’s Leadership Council hosted “Leading Through the Generations” on March 26, exploring the conflicts that arise when people of different generations work together, as well as solutions and advice for the Rider students who will soon be entering the workforce.
The panel consisted of six panelists: facilitator and millennial relations expert Logan McIntosh; Allyson Cook, ’11; Pat Hartpence, ’78; Denise Petitta, ’86; Lindsay Alvarado, ’06; and Jack Gottlieb, facilitator from Rider’s Center for the Development of Leadership Skills (CDLS).
All of the panelists stressed the importance of face-to-face interaction with clients and other employees, particularly when the topic is sensitive. They pointed out that electronic communication has its shortcomings in that the conversation is permanently documented, which traditionalists sometimes feel uncomfortable with, and participants are more likely to misinterpret the information being communicated.
Millennials, despite their preference for emailing and texting, have to accept the value of in-person communication in the workplace. However, this doesn’t mean that technology cannot foster successful communication. Gottlieb pointed out the value in combining different forms of communication in the workplace.
“Particularly with staff, we might have in-person contact, or an email sent with an attachment, and then we might follow up with a text to make sure that they got it,” said Gottlieb. “With clients, we will use the voice memo app on our iPhones and we will send a voice recording as an email or text message attachment that might be 30 seconds to a minute long. It’s dynamic, but it’s portable — and that’s been huge for us.”
Another unique trait that millennials are bringing into the workforce is the need to be inspired by their work.
“They don’t necessarily always take your role as manager as a reason to take direction from you, whereas older individuals respect your title and will just do what you say,” said Alvarado, a Business Support Manager at Merrill Lynch. “The younger individuals ask, ‘How does this fit into the big picture? How am I making a difference?’ That is definitely something that a manager has to be aware of when working with many generations.”
As a millennial herself, Alvarado has tried to bring a sense of openness to her workplace community at Merrill Lynch by encouraging her employees to be “out.” She encourages them to be open about their hobbies, culture, background, sexuality, etc., because she knows that each individual has his or her own perspective to offer.
Gottlieb, CEO of Total Solutions Group and the lone male on the panel, entered the workforce as the youngest employee in the company and now uses his own experiences to successfully communicate with young interns. A common obstacle with millennials is their fear to voice their ideas and opinions to older, more experienced employees.
“They come in already thinking, ‘I’m too young. I’m inexperienced. They know better than I do,’’’ he explained. When Gottlieb noticed that his interns clearly wanted to share — but just weren’t — he began to implement a system in which his interns led all of the meetings about a particular client, asking their questions and voicing their ideas and opinions before the managers.
“It took time, and I always wanted to share something. The silence was sometimes deafening,” he said. “But managing people of different generations requires that we have to be quiet. If we run our meetings and expect their voice at the end, it’s not going to happen because they don’t want to get in the way of our ideas. We have to let their voices be heard first, so we give them the permission to share.”
While differences in generation and gender present opportunities for conflict and miscommunication, Petitta, executive director at JPMorgan Chase, pointed out that variations in personality and ethnicity can also create obstacles, but being aware can help individuals to avoid them.
“Look beyond that and keep your antennae up for other cues — communication is about more than the channel by which it reaches you,” said Petitta. “You will find yourself working with introverts and extroverts. This is a very globally diverse community now, so you need to be sensitive to different ethnicities and diverse cultures. All of that comes together to be an effective communicator.”
Cook agreed that diversity of all kinds, as well as the stereotypes that people associate with a certain gender, race, or way of life, are important to keep in mind when communicating with others. Rather than ignoring stereotypes, she stresses that everyone must be aware of them.
“Being a person managing older adults, but also a female of color, was difficult to navigate at first,” said Cook. “I learned that it’s important to wake up in the morning and walk into your job with a smile on your face, say ‘hello’ to the people that walk by you. Because if you don’t, people are going to make assumptions and stereotype you for not being friendly.”
As the youngest panelist and the most recent Rider graduate, Cook connected with female students in the audience.
“I hope that the young women here are able to take away how necessary and essential it is for them to communicate and be authentic with their own skills — not being hesitant or skeptical about what they are thinking, but instead bringing their own ideas to the table,” said Cook. “We can make sure that women are heard by being conquerors, owning their career and being able to communicate, both with men and women.”
By Sarah Bergen