For some years now, the topic of Generation X, Generation Y and now Generation Z and the relationships between each cohort has been ever-present in conversations at the water fountains, in boardrooms and smoothie bars of organisations around the world.
These three groups now make up the majority of the working population, occupying positions from the top to the bottom of organisations that offer us the opportunity to be part of multigenerational teams where we can apply our knowledge, collaborate to solve problems and ultimately give ourselves a standard of living that we can hopefully enjoy or strive towards achieving.
But the conversations are interesting ones, often focusing on the perceptions, judgments and biases of one Generation’s experiences over another and why one Generation needs to change in order to satisfy the wants, needs and beliefs of those they work with. This usually leads to disagreements and conflict, suppression of ideas and internal conflicts that can limit the ability of a team to perform to its highest potential.
Some argue that societies are defined by inequalities that produce conflict and the disadvantaged have interests that run counter to those of the status quo, which when assumed forces social change that is then seen as the norm (Sears, 2005). Others just call it as they see it, saying they are misunderstood, misheard and mistreated by the others they work with.
Observers have noted varying behaviour patterns for each Generation, which can point towards some of the differences experienced within teams.
Generation X have been broadly characterised as being skeptical, resourceful, independent and straightforward, seeking flexibility and work-life balance from the organisations they work for (Abrams and Von Frank, 2013).
Generation Y (Millennials) on the other hand are known to be tech savvy, collaborative and versatile, seeking fast rewards, instant feedback and are confident in their own capabilities within the work place (Abrams and Von Frank, 2013).
And now coming into the workplace are Generation Z, or as some have labelled them Plurals, a cynical, private, multi-tasking group of hyper-aware and technology-reliant individuals who value honesty and privacy; they are so familiar with receiving stimuli from every direction possible that they think and act with a complexity that is incomprehensible to some (Elmore, 2015).
In team situations, these behaviours can be the cause of deep frustration for some.
A scenario that might seem familiar
Consider for a moment a regular team meeting that everyone has been asked to attend. A Generation X team member remembers the principles passed down to them about the importance of presence and physical interaction at meetings, and arrives ready for the meeting having researched and prepared for the meeting days in advance.
A Generation Y member has taken some time to consider the agenda beforehand, but, safe in the knowledge they have technology at hand, they can source the answers to the questions being asked in that meeting.
Finally the Generation Z member strolls in with a clear confidence that the meeting will get an outcome that everyone is happy with. However, they question why the physical meeting was needed in the first place, as the solutions could have been found and agreed over Slack weeks ago, along with solutions to 5 other projects.
X gets frustrated at Y because they are constantly looking at their computer screen and Z because they’re huffing like the meeting is a waste of time. Y also gets frustrated at Z for disrespecting the fact everyone is physically together and X for not understanding why they are using their device. And Z can’t understand why X and Y are frustrated and gets frustrated with the apparent negativity to the creative solutions they are proposing from X because ‘it’s not the way we’ve done it before’.
So what might be driving these behaviours?
Beliefs and where we learn them
Bateson (1981) argued in his Logical Levels model that we have at our core our identity and the beliefs we hold true. These underpin the skills and capabilities that we use in our interactions with the world, and the behaviours we demonstrate.
Alongside this, current estimates from neuroscience suggest that approximately 6% of behaviour is transferred genetically, which would imply around 94% of human behaviour is learned from the environment around us, and our experiences within it.
So in the absence of experience, where do our beliefs, these generalisations that we hold close and true to defining who we are, come from?
Beliefs are installed when we have rapport with an individual, we unconsciously see them as an authority and we do not critically analyse the information they present us with. Our unconscious brains accept that information as ‘fact’, irrespective of whether it is true or not, and work to maintain balance to those facts unless challenged at a very deep level.
In reality, when we are faced with a new experience, be it at home when we are growing up, in school or in the workplace, we are open to hearing and accepting the beliefs of how we should behave and what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We generally have rapport with the more experienced people who guide us in those moments (parents, teachers, managers), we respect their authority and initially have little or no rationale for critically analysing the ‘facts’ we are told.
But this is where the conflict and subsequent frustrations in interpretations of behaviour can occur.
If we take the earlier scenario for example, the Generation X team member has had years to learn the importance of preparation, potentially having been unprepared for a meeting once that led to negative performance review. Therefore, they believe that anyone should prepare for a meeting to make sure of a positive outcome.
Gen Y has grown through the emergence of technology in the workplace and believes working in a more real-time fashion manages their time more effectively before the meeting. But they also respect the lesson they learnt from their first manager, who being from Gen X instilled the belief that presence at meetings is one of the fundamentals of collaboration.
And finally, you have Gen Z, who was given permission to explore the capabilities of technology with little negative challenge at home and in school, across multiple subject areas. Coupled with their belief that anything is possible, they hold this approach to life to be true, and having little experience of other approaches they behave in a way that demonstrates that belief.
When these differing beliefs are brought into the team environment, teams limit their potential to perform if time is not spent learning about what each team member values and believes.
Listen, embrace, learn and grow
With an increasingly complex work environment, one with multiple objectives, roles and responsibilities, it can seem difficult to find the time to appreciate each other, and what strengths each team member brings to the table.
However, by dedicating regular time to listen to what other people believe to be true, what they value in the world and where those ‘truths’ originate from, teams can start to positively understand why people behave in the way that they do.
If the information learnt is embraced from a position of curiousity – one that seeks to embrace the individual’s intentions that are often good at their heart – then team members can learn about each other’s values and why they do what they do.
And with this approach onboard, teams can learn to bridge the perceived gaps between them and build bonds that will enable them to achieve collective success now and into the future, irrespective of the generation each team member is from.
Abrams, J.B. and Von Frank, V. (2013) The Multigenerational workplace: Communicate, collaborate, and create community. United States: Corwin Publishers.
Bateson, G. (1981) Steps to an ecology of mind; collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. 10th edn. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.
Elmore, T. (2015) Growing leaders Available at: https://growingleaders.com/blog/six-defining-characteristics-of-generation-z/ (Accessed: 7 February 2017).
Sears, A. (2005) A good book, in theory: A guide to theoretical thinking. Peterborough, Ont.: University of Toronto Press.