Communication for the Ages

We Have Four Generations in the Work Place at the Same Time Each With Different Cultures, Skills, and Expectations

By Greg McMillan, Stan Weiner

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Stan: Communication is increasingly the bottleneck for better performance by the individual, project and plant. The days of the engineer being able to hole up in a cubicle with vendor catalogs and spec sheets are long gone. For the first time we have four generations in the work place at the same time each with different cultures, skills, and expectations.

Greg: When I told Jim Cahill, Emerson's social media manager, about the feature article I was doing in this issue, "Talk to Each Other," he introduced me to Steve Elwart, the director of systems engineering at Ergon Refining Inc. Steve has an extraordinary combination of practical technical and communication knowledge.

Stan: What is the generational history at Ergon Refining?

Steve: The refinery was built in 1974. Since this was Ergon's first refinery, 18-22 year old auto mechanics, carpenters and other trade people were hired to staff it. They did not know they were not supposed to be able to run a plant. Now these guys are the experts. (I came along in 1985.) About six years ago, we began to be concerned about a flood of retirements to pursue the popular activities of hunting and fishing, but the economic turndown postponed this problem. Now the concern is more about how to integrate the younger workers into the existing work force. We are five to 10 years behind in generational turnover seen in the refining industry, but we have seen explosive growth in the company, with a corresponding increase in staffing requirements. We don't hire mid-career. We hire co-ops and graduates. They are the Millennial Generation (18 to 30 years old). Some of their mothers are younger than I am. There are big differences in lifestyles and vernaculars. This was the big motivation for me getting an advanced degree in communication.

Stan: What are some of the distinguishing characteristics of the co-ops and new hires?

Steve: Multi-tasking is a natural behavior. They are not seeing the value of relationships. They are not as likely to initiate extensive one-on-one conversations, leaving the more experienced wondering why they don't come to seek help. Communication is concise. They tend not to have sense of reasonableness of scale. For example, when they see a digital temperature, they get hung up on a hundredth of a degree, not realizing the sensor was only good to two degrees.

Kids raised by helicopter parents may think they are always winners, expecting praise for everything they do. When I told a co-op of serious mistake he made, his mother called and complained I did not praise her son enough for trying. Quick positive feedback is expected. In one Duke University study, work received was immediately filed without comment, acknowledged or shredded. The reaction for the work being filed was about as negative as for the work being shredded.

The "here and now" is most important. When Millennials or the next generation asks what time it is, they don't want to know how to build a watch. The expectation is achievement and zero risk.

Creativity is less due to need for immediacy and zero risk and the attitude, "If you can't Google it, it is not real." Decisions are "three bids and buy," foregoing the development of relationships and a more in-depth understanding.

Everything is viewed as free and open source. You don't need to give credit or reference. The foregoing of recognition and the brevity of communication and the scarcity of conversation can be inadvertently construed as rudeness. What is rude to one generation is not to another.

Greg: I wish some people would be more in the "here and now." When I talk to people older than me, they seem to catch at best a few scattered words. The words are more often in the middle or near the end. Young people I know are attentive in person, but expect email to be as short as a text message. I was perplexed why a web support person's solution had no relationship to the problem I explained in an email. I had to keep reiterating the problem in a series of email messages. I finally figured out the person was only reading the first sentence of my email. How do you make email more effective?

Steve: I start the email with the motivating lead followed by the request. For more complex issues, especially where there is a misunderstanding, disagreement or mistake, verbal one-on-one conversations accomplish much more. [I prefer to have them] in person, but if necessary, by phone.

Stan: How do you see the grade level progression of the various generations?

Steve: Now 38- to 42-year-olds may have a younger boss. Gen Y is passing up Gen X in promotions. The Harvard Business Review blog, "Don't Dismiss Your Gen X Talent," indicates that while Gen X talent is the key to the success of most companies, Gen Xers are being leapfrogged by Gen Y and blocked by Boomers, who are now delaying retirement.

Greg: Maybe Gen Y's greater interest in quick results, sustained effort, flexibility, mobility and the desire to move up is leading to more promotions. What are some of the key characteristics of Gen X that companies need to recognize?

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