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Divide may be narrower than believed

By Joanne G. Sujansky, Ph.D. CSP

Executives say the darnedest things. Managers do, too.

And that is how Joanne G. Sujansky, Ph.D., founder and principal of the Pittsburgh-based KEYGroup® consulting firm first began to notice there was a common theme emerging in the offhand comments her clients sometimes offered after the formal interviews had ended.

When she and her staff realized they were hearing the same two comments voiced in casual conversations with corporate leaders of a certain age, it became clear the executives were on to something, albeit unknowingly, Sujansky said. The topic was the “Millenial” workers who notoriously are challenging workplace norms and frustrating their supervisors. The speakers were the Baby Boomer managers feeling the stress.

On the one hand, the Boomers insisted that Millenials (born between 1980 and 1995) can be maddening to manage, given their much-noted propensity for resisting traditional workplace attitudes and structures.

On the other hand, however, most of the Baby Boomers were quick to point out that their own offspring were the exception to the rule.

For Sujansky-whose business is built on understanding the unique culture of each workplace and finding strategies to make that culture both more fulfilling and more productive-those contradictory perceptions pointed to less than obvious conclusions.

“For one thing, the belief that ‘everyone is below average but my kid’ obviously doesn’t hold water, statistically,” she said. “It sounds a lot like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.

“More important, though, it also shows that at least a portion of the workplace tension between the generations has as much to do with expectations and perceptions as with reality,” she said.

What that can mean in the workplace is that not only the older workers but members of both generations need to set aside the natural-but misguided-tendency to see the age divide in terms of their own family relationships.

Numerous studies show that what Millennial workers want most from their managers and older colleagues is respect, and they are resentful when it doesn’t come. Likewise, those casual conversations with Baby Boomers suggest that the traits they are most likely to complain about in their young employees really aren’t so foreign after all.

When pressed, Sujansky said, the generation that came of age in the rebellious 1960s and 70s often admits that it went into business wanting the same things today’s young workers want, including their elders’ respect, autonomy, opportunity and financial rewards. The difference is that a Millennial is more likely to assert itself to get those things.

Quite often, that can lead to raised eyebrows and resentment from the Baby Boomers, who see a sense of entitlement in Millennial’s attitudes – unless the assertive Gen Y employee happens to be their own deserving son or daughter. In that case, they are likely to praise the same characteristics they resent in their own employees.

In Sujansky’s view, it all adds up to an opportunity to bridge the generation gap just a bit.

“When Baby Boomer managers and executives begin to recognize they have more common ground with Millenial’s than they thought, it gives them a new perspective,” she said. “What once seemed like huge differences begin to look a lot more familiar.”

Joanne G. Sujansky, Ph.D., is a Certified Speaking Professional and CEO and founder of Pittsburgh-based KEYGroup®. For 28 years, KEYGroup® has worked with leaders to make their workplaces more productive and profitable. To contact Joanne please call 724-942-7900 or go to her web site at: