What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word millennial? You might think that millennials are entitled and want to make a quick buck. Or you might believe that they are young and restless, idealistic, inherently creative and out to make a difference. How about baby boomers? Depending on your orientation, you may believe that they are carefree laggards or strict disciplinarians, or you may have a completely different notion altogether.

Our experiences at home or work may justify the biases we carry within us, which may further reinforce the stereotypes we subconsciously adhere to. This may translate into behaviours and actions that may turn out to be counter-productive to maintaining healthy relationships. Take, for instance, the father who has a tough time understanding the motivations of his millennial children and believes that they need to be disciplined. At work, he may have millennial employees reporting to him. He may carry this belief into the workplace and based on his predispositions, enforce strict management principles on his team. However, employees may have little in common with his children , and his assumptions about his offspring may not apply uniformly to his direct reports at work. In other words, such a “spill-over effect" is likely to backfire.

Regardless of our leanings, it may be important to take a step back and reflect on what we know and what we don’t when it comes to engaging with a multi-generational workforce. When it comes to understanding and working with different generations, the reality is far more complex, nuanced and emergent.

Defining generations

The Pew Research Centre defines millennials as those aged between 23 and 38, which means the oldest millennial will turn 40 in a couple of years. Clearly, the “young and restless" tag doesn’t apply equally to the cohort. In contrast, the Gen Zers, aged 22 and under, began entering the workplace about four years ago. The baby boomers are between 55 and 73 years of age. There is some evidence to suggest that boomers may be delaying their retirement, given the uncertainty in the job market. The Gen Xers are between 39 and 54 years, and are likely to hold middle manager to senior manager profiles in organizations.

In their book, No Hard Feelings, authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, point out that “boomers see millennials as slovenly job hoppers whereas millennials think boomers are digitally hopeless job-hoggers." The authors point out that despite these stereotypes, many such differences are attributable to life stage. According to The Atlantic columnist Elspeth Reeve, “It’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists. It’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older."

Going beyond stereotypes

Millennials and Gen Zers (also called the i-Gen) are digital natives, meaning they either came of age or were born in an era of Internet and exploding digital technology. In comparison, the Gen Xers and baby boomers are digital immigrants, that is, they had to adapt to this change and adjusted their work styles to suit modern workplace requirements. When it comes to communication, younger executives are more likely to use text, email or the hottest new enterprise communication tool, whereas executives from older generations might prefer meeting face to face or talking over the telephone.

Despite these differences, both younger and older executives would do well to make the effort to understand and when needed, adjust to each other’s work styles.

We highlight two ways in which employees can bridge the inter-generational gap:

u Test your assumptions: Mark Twain pointed out, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so." Managers are advised to test their assumptions on what they believe to be true when leading younger employees. Frequent two-way communication is paramount. Weekly touchpoints with direct reports can help managers uncover hidden needs and build relationships.

u Set up a cross-generational mentoring programme: Authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy suggest setting up a mentoring programme matching younger employees with older ones. This can help in “widening both parties’ mental horizons and reducing discrimination". For instance, younger employees could help their older colleagues move up the digital intelligence curve, whereas older executives could provide crucial inputs on emotional intelligence to their younger counterparts.

Psychologist Dolly Chugh of NYU Stern School of Business points out that when it comes to inclusive behaviour, it is important keep in mind that we are all “a work-in-progress". Irrespective of the generation we belong to, we may have certain “ordinary privileges" that others may not have access to. Such privileges bring with them associated blind spots. Yet, once we become aware of them, these are our best tools to influence change. The journey to engagement begins with moving from wilful ignorance to wilful awareness.

Rajiv Jayaraman is the founder-CEO of learning and assessments platform KNOLSKAPE, and the author of Clearing the Digital Blur, and Subramanian Kalpathi is senior director at KNOLSKAPE and author of The Millennials: Exploring The World Of The Largest Living Generation.

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