This article was inspired by a story-sharing session about generational communication between Albert B. Ciuksza Jr. and me over coffee. Albert, who is in his late 30s, was telling me, in my early 50s, about how his father, a successful athlete, tried to teach his then-3-year-old son to play catch.
In the dusty backyard of their lower middle-class neighborhood in El Paso, Texas, they tossed a blue racquetball until Albert’s dad’s throw was a little too aggressive for his preschool-aged reflexes. He shouted, “Duck.” The ball, with a distinctive pop, hit Albert square in the forehead. He ran into the house, mustering his indignation and complained to his mom, “Dad hit me in the head with a ball … and called me a duck.”
With five generations in the workforce, not only do we navigate different experiences, priorities and cultural paradigms, we use the same words with different meanings. While the stakes of backyard catch were reasonably low, the economic implications of generational misunderstanding are further reaching.
In the next two decades, 12 million small and mid-sized businesses are expected to change hands, making a sizeable portion of the $30 trillion that will pass from baby boomers to younger individuals.
This shift is not just about wealth — although that’s undoubtedly at risk — but about the legacy of those business owners and the incalculable value of experienced baby boomer workers.
We both get asked about how best to communicate with different generations. After comparing notes as representatives of Gen X and Y, we agreed on the following principles.
- Approach with empathy. For older workers approaching retirement, the idea of giving up their life’s work can impact their core identity. For younger employees eager to take the reins, sitting on the sidelines for a few more years can be deflating. Empathy is at the root of every successful intergenerational relationship. Asking more questions and assuming the best will lead to better interactions, more significant learning and a smoother transition.
- Consider the iceberg principle. Many motivations behind behavior are under the surface, invisible to others and maybe even to ourselves. Unfortunately, all of us, no matter the stage of life, tend to create a story that might feel right but is almost always wrong and often damaging. Leaders should pause, rather than jump to conclusions. Having the discipline and patience to understand, rather than react, can yield incredible returns in enabling dialogue.
- Have a sense of urgency without pressure. In 2017, 35 percent of the workforce was millennial aged, the largest of the five generations participating. By 2025, that number will be 75 percent, a pace of change unprecedented in history. While there is an urgency to accelerate learning, putting pressure on the process will only frustrate and offend.
No matter your age or experience, you can’t duck your responsibility to be part of the solution. Taking an open, empathetic approach will make businesses and leaders more successful.
Aradhna M. Oliphant is the president and CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh Inc. LPI strengthens regional leadership by connecting current and emerging leaders and high-potential veterans with each other and with people and issues that shape communities. Under her leadership, demand for LPI programs has grown exponentially. A graduate of LPI, Aradhna is deeply committed to the region including through service on boards and commissions. She is invited frequently to speak and write on leadership.
Albert B. Ciuksza Jr. is the director of leadership programs at Solutions 21, which partners with organizations to deliver strategic leadership solutions through existing and next leaders, and strategic planning and special projects. Albert has led the recreation of the company’s Next Leader Now program and has coached hundreds of leaders at all levels internationally. A graduate of Leadership Pittsburgh’s LDI program and Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business, Albert has remained active in serving in several regional nonprofit organizations.