Project Communications in a Multi-Generational World

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In November of 1963, I was nine years old. While I can’t remember most of what happened back then, one incident has remained seared in my memory from then till now – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That singular act changed the direction of the country and hence, the world.

In September of 2001, my son was eight years old. His memory, too, is vague on the majority of world events from that time. But he specifically remembers being at school and hearing teachers in the hallway discussing something momentous and tragic. And when he came home later that day he saw the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City falling. And that was another act that changed the world’s direction.

Why do I mention these incidents? Because they are defining moments in two different generations that helped shape their vision of the world forever. And this is interesting for us to know not only as citizens of the earth but also as people who must lead teams in organizations. What are their defining moments? How do they see the world?

Because according to the Center for Generational Kinetics, there are currently five generations in the workforce:

  • The iGeneration, or GenZ, born 1996 and after
  • Millennials, or GenY, born 1977 to 1995.
  • Generation X, born 1965 to 1976
  • Baby Boomers, born 1946 to 1964
  • Traditionalists, aka Greatest Generation, born 1945 and before.

I’m going to go on the record and say that there are likely relatively few traditionalists in the workforce and even the boomers are starting to retire. But there are still plenty of boomers (like me) in the workforce and many of them are managing the prior generations.

To use just one generation as an example, in 2010, a Harvard Business Review article predicted that by 2014, half the workforce would be millennials. And so, this being 2017, we have long since arrived at that milestone. And so I’ll focus here on the boomer/millennial work relationship.

A question we boomers have to ask ourselves is this: how do we communicate with other generations? I had an interesting conversation with a couple of fellow project managers about this very topic. And one of them kept getting increasingly frustrated with the way millennials communicate.

“They have short attention spans!” “They’re always looking at their phones!” “They never read the newspaper!” And it dawned on me that frankly, this guy was part of the problem, not the solution. Because he kept looking at the situation through the prism of his generation and not through that of the one he was managing.

Expanding on the first example of the major events of millennials and baby boomers, it is instrumental, I think, to consider how those two groups see the world.

Baby boomers were the sons and daughters of a much more traditional generation and attempted to shake off the shackles of what was expected of them. And by dint of sheer numbers, they were (and still are) able to make profound changes in society. I won’t argue that they were all good. But change there was. They are – and were – the Woodstock generation. I personally think that the boomers had one foot in their own generation and one in the prior generation. So as radical as they may have seemed at the time, they were in some respects still somewhat traditional in their ways of communicating, of relating, of working.  And like all generations, they have become more conservative as they’ve aged.

Millennials are by and large the children of the boomers. They are labeled, I often think unfairly, as “entitled.” (In a class I taught where we discussed this, one woman’s knee-jerk reaction was to use that expression while shaking her head. Again, it does not help if we label each generation, thereby tacitly extolling our own generation’s wonderfulness. But which generation does not have some flaws?)

But what differentiates the millennials, at least as far as communications? Two words – social media. My kids grew up with computers from the age of two or three.  They have had cell phones at least since they were teenagers. And how do many of their peers communicate?  By texting. Sometimes when they’re sitting right next to each other. Is that a good thing? Well, it’s not what I or my peers would do. But I’m not typically managing my peers. I’m managing millennials. And so it’s important for me to understand their preferred methods of communication.

So when I hold a kick-off meeting and we talk about communication planning, this is something we discuss. If I am planning to communicate exclusively by email, well, does that work? What kind of response time should I expect? I could just impose my boomer style on everyone. But if you impose your style on other generations ask yourself this question – how has that worked out for you thus far?

I haven’t even talked here about motivation or lifestyle. But those are worth exploring if you’re working in an intergenerational environment. I think the lesson learned is that trying to impose our communication (not to say project or learning) style on other generations is a non-starter. Better to understand where they are coming from and meet them more than halfway. Communications in a project are difficult enough without fighting that particular uphill battle.

Jim Stewart

Jim Stewart

Since 2003, as a principal of JP Stewart Associates, Jim has been engaged in multiple endeavors including consulting, training and mentoring. A PMP since 2001 and Certified Scrum Master since 2013, he provides PMP Prep training both in public and private in-house sessions.

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