Lost in Translation: Cross-Generational Communications That Work


Good talent is hard to find, hard to keep, and hard to grow. Talent is what makes or breaks an organization. People can innovate, achieve, overcome, and unite. People can also divide, isolate, and sabotage an organization- and do so with the best intentions. Building a successful organization is reliant upon talent retention, and in many cases that requires a plan for talent development. Leveraging what employees want out of a position and their organization can seem impossible with so many perspectives to consider.

For the first time in history, there are five generations in the workforce: Traditionalists (born 1925-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1980), Millennials (born 1981-2000), and Generation Z (Born 2001-2020) (Purdue Global, 2021). Each generation had a different upbringing, different world events that shaped their experiences, all leading to a unique set of values in each group. In addition, the shift in technology and automation have drastically altered what even Gen X would consider to be a typical career path compared to Millennials and Gen Z who tend to “job hop” more often and value the upsides to gig work i.e. flexibility, being their own boss, etc. (Workforce Institute, 2019). Differing values and career patterns come up in HR offices around recruitment and benefits, but it’s a topic less traveled by the average manager.

Being labeled an unempathetic and dismissive manager is just as unfair and unfun as being labeled an ungrateful employee looking for a participation trophy. Difficult conversations around meaningful work and career growth across generations can leave both parties feeling unsatisfied and misunderstood. In what seems to be a divisive conversation, let’s start with what we have in common.

Desda Moss at SHRM has identified 7 values that connect us all: feeling respected, being listened to, having opportunities for mentoring, understanding the big picture, receiving effective communication, receiving positive feedback, and experiencing an exchange of ideas. Despite differing priorities and nuances, we all have a great deal in common when it comes to what we want out of our work. So how can we sum up these seven personal values into an organizational culture?

A general framework can be boiled down to continuous feedback, relationships, and the psychological safety to ensure both of those are effective. Survey responses won’t be honest if people fear telling the truth or nonexistent if they’re apathetic or don’t believe their feedback will be taken seriously. But more than surveys, people join and leave organizations because of other people. Employees can perform the same job they do somewhere else, at a similar rate, on potentially a more appealing team or with a more engaging manager.

Effective feedback and relationships do not exist without psychological safety. The harmony that comes from balancing the two is a continuous process that produces continuous results and adapts as your people and or organization adapt.

Feedback is more than surveys, and relationships are more than reporting relationships. While a standard employee engagement survey can be useful in benchmarking against goals, it doesn’t have to be the only evaluation tool. Regular litmus tests can come from appreciative inquiry sessions with teams performing exceptionally well or feedback at regular manager forums to hear problems and attitudes across departments. On a more individual level (read: relationships), it’s having a functional open door policy, requiring you to continuously build trust with your team if you want them to use it. Gaining insight into what your people want for themselves and what they want from you is the first half of retaining and growing good talent. The second half requires the resources and flexibility to meet those needs, but that’s an article for another time.

Building a psychologically safe environment committed to productive continuous feedback and building relationships won’t close the generational gap, but it could make it smaller where it counts.

Copyright 2021 P. Kirby