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Giving Directions to Different Generations

Communication needs will vary by individual, but there are some trends we can see across generations that impact how they prefer to receive instruction as well as how they respond to different kinds of instructions.

Both Boomers and Generation X were defined in part by their rebellion against the attitudes and cultural norms of their parents’ generations. As a result, when they entered the workforce, they worked best with limited oversight and supervision. They resisted direct authority. This was a big departure from the norms of the Matures’ generation.

How Matures give and expect instruction at work:

“Place this widget in that box, then get Y tape so we can ship it.”

What they think and say:

“I’ll do that now.”

How Boomers and Gen X Give and Prefer Instructions:

“When you get a chance, could you see if we have some Y tape to seal up that part in a box so we can ship it please?.”

What Boomers Think and Say:

“No problem. I’ll do that today.”

What Gen X Thinks and Says:

Thinks: "You know I have an MBA. Can’t we outsource this kind of stuff? I’ll do it now so I can get back to my real work.”

Says: “Sure thing.”

About the only difference between the two generations is a slightly different attitude toward how meaningful or important their work should be, but otherwise, the outward communication and actions are very similar.

Applying the Golden Rule, Boomers and Gen X have been attempting to give instruction to Gen Y and Gen Z the same way they want to receive it. But when instructions are given in the open and non-restrictive Boomer/Gen X language, things get lost in translation.

What Boomers and Gen X say:

“When you get a chance, could you see if we have some Y tape to seal up that part in a box so we can ship it please?.”

What Gen Y hears:

“Put the widgets in the boxes if you can find them. If not, ask for help. Tape will be required, so if we have Y tape, use it, but if not, I can find it for you. Do this in the next week, unless I tell you it’s urgent.”

What Gen Z thinks:

“Widgets. Boxes. Tape. OK. Who uses widgets? Why aren’t the boxes self-sealing? I’m going to order some self-sealing boxes, and if I can’t, I’m going to patent that idea. I need to research the existing patents online. I’ll get to the widgets after that.”

As you can see, different generational experiences as well as different life stages impact how directions are understood. The resulting Gen Y behaviors can be criticized as “needy,” and the Gen Z behavior can be labeled as “undisciplined.” The truth is it is simply misunderstanding. The suggestions below may be more effective, at least in the early stages of managing a new, younger employee.

A better way to instruct young employees:

“Place these widgets in those boxes, then get Y tape from the work room to seal it by 5 p.m. today. Once you’ve been through the process, see if you see opportunities to do this faster, cheaper or better by changing the processes or the materials we currently use and let me know your thoughts by Monday.”

Gen Y and Gen Z are both accustomed to completing tasks quickly, so they don’t always have a sense of urgency to start a task, particularly if it seems boring. (Let’s face it; any generation can be pretty good at procrastinating unpleasant tasks.) For this reason, it is important that you are clear and specific on deadlines and deliverables. If you are clear on your timelines and expectations, they will do everything in their power to make you happy, including coming up with some great new ideas to improve your processes and reduce your costs. But also be clear if you want new ideas to be run by you before they are implemented, because Gen Z might not realize this.

Many managers are complaining that Gen Y, in particular, is requiring much more time, mentoring and supervision than previous generations. It’s difficult to know if that’s actually true, given our subjective and flawed memories of our own early careers. They are coming to the workforce with a different mindset and approach to learning than previous generations. Like many new hires, they want mentoring and oversight, because they want to do a good job. To avoid doing a bad job, they want significant instruction and feedback until they are confident in their roles. Once they are confident, they are extremely high performers. In my experience, this is true of many new professionals, regardless of their generation.

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