I typically like to stay out of discussions about generational differences. Like many millennials, I find the stereotypes to be frustrating, ill-fitting, and generally lazy—I’m sure the feeling is mutual among other generations as well. In a lot of these discussions, there is an adversarial tone—it’s us vs. them. Those millennials are so entitled. Those boomers are so stuck in their ways. Who knows what to do with Gen Z? I tend to find the whole discussion exhausting. We’re all just people, after all.

However, there is one area that has been concerning lately, which I suspect is related to the challenges of operating with many generations in the workplace: Whose definitions are assumed to be the norm, and which assumptions go unchallenged?

Abandoning Assumptions and Defining Values

There are a number of values that are widely held across all age groups in the workplace — broad ideas like respect, collaboration, leadership, innovation. The problem arises when you have individuals who have fundamentally different definitions of these values, which manifest in different types of behaviors. Defaulting to the definitions of those who are in charge can create challenging environments for everyone else, and contribute to the adversarial notion of generations pitted against each other.

We must be willing to question our default definitions and assumptions to make space for diversity.

Take the idea of respect. The definition of respect can vary widely—yes, across generations, but also across cultures, and from individual to individual. For some people, respect means deference. It means formal titles, not questioning ideas, letting them have the power in a relationship—it’s doing what they say because they said so. For others, respect is about space and understanding. It’s about opening dialogue, asking questions, being empathetic to circumstances that affect individuals differently.

If you view respect as something that is owed, you’re likely to encounter conflict with someone who views respect as something that is earned.

Of course, organizations need at least a bit of hierarchy to get things done. Someone needs to make the call, set the agenda, and green-light the go-forward plan. However, if that leader isn’t open to feedback, input, and collaboration with the front-line employees, who are often closest to the problem that needs to be solved, they may be sacrificing results for a blind assumption that they should be deferred to simply because of their authority.

For individual contributors, it’s hard to question managers. I imagine that managers also have a hard time questioning senior leaders. And for those senior leaders, I also imagine that it’s hard to carry the weight of responsibility for decision making, especially if the people who report up to you aren’t comfortable sharing their doubts and concerns.

Respect, or an outdated definition of it, gets in the way of free communication.

Add in some generational differences, or even the perception of generational difference, and it’s a recipe for difficulty. All millennials are great at social media, right? So let’s just grab the youngest looking person to run that for us. Boomers all have a high degree of economic stability, right? So let’s keep our policy of asking them to pay upfront for travel, and reimburse them later. That brilliant leader has generated great success in their previous roles, no need to immerse them in our particular market—their assumptions are all valid, I’m sure of it.

Creating Inclusive Spaces for All Generations

I recently had a conversation with a former colleague about mistakes an organization made. One of the senior leaders at the time was universally recognized as brilliant, and yet, things went poorly in part because they were so intelligent that none of their assumptions had been questioned, and the organization went down a path based on their recommendation. If we’d thought to really dig in and question the assumptions that the recommendation was based on, we could have likely prevented a bad outcome. Respect for their intelligence got in the way of asking critical questions.

Obviously, a blog post can’t solve this complex issue. But, from my experience, there are some things that leaders can do to mitigate these effects in their organizations and teams.

Set Your Baseline

Make sure that you’re making space for individuals on your team to express their needs and preferences. Millennials have a bit of a reputation for being averse to unplanned phone calls (count me guilty of this one myself). Does your team prefer to have calls scheduled ahead of time? That’s an easy accommodation to make. What are the norms for checking email outside of work hours? Can those be adjusted to account for the difficult personal situation a colleague is dealing with? What kind of processes are in place for accommodating a disability? Are those clear and communicated within the team? What about reporting for issues of sexual harassment, or discrimination? Make sure that your environment is safe for everyone, regardless of their age, race, gender identity/expression, abilities.

Discuss Values and Their Definition

Make space for a discussion about values on your team. How do you define respect? What does effective communication look like in practice? What does your team need from you—can you create space for coaching through challenges? When it’s time for you as the leader to step in and make a decision, how can you create buy-in and collaboration for the go-forward plan? This type of conversation will be difficult if there isn’t already a degree of trust with your team, so you may need to start introducing these questions in your one-on-ones (which you should be doing anyway!) before you open it up to a team discussion.

Challenge Assumptions

Whenever you start a new project or initiative (or introduce a pivot to an existing process/project), take a moment to step back and list the assumptions that the project is built on. Let’s say you want to add a conference component to your marketing efforts. Before you get into the details of who will attend, what they will bring, which conferences they’ll go to, start by challenging the assumptions that underpin the why for adding this to your plans. We assume that our ideal customer attends at least one industry conference a year — is that true? We had great success at conferences ten years ago — but has our ideal buyer evolved in that time? You may find that your assumptions are valid, and move forward as planned. Or, you may uncover something that allows you to pivot before you waste time on a faulty initiative.

I strongly believe that diversity is a strength. Diversity of thought, experience, age, world view, beliefs, capabilities, orientation — when we are able to work together and see the experiences of others with empathy and understanding, we can create solutions and results that far exceed our expectations. But, we need to be willing and able to question our default definitions and assumptions to make space for this diversity, or we’ll get stuck in an us vs. them mentality, where working together is impossible.

Photo by Tiago Felipe Ferreira on Unsplash
In order to create inclusive workspaces for all generations we must, as leaders, abandon lazy assumptions and recognize the importance of defining values.