Leading in today’s environment is tough. One of the factors which makes leadership today challenging is the generational diversity around our offices and across Slack channels.

Every organization and business today has to fight the same battle – four or five generations are at the table, looking to be heard and valued. Builders, Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z all see the world very differently, and the values conflict is real.

I didn’t comprehend how the massive generations gap in our country until I went on staff at a large church with a massive generation gap. For the last 12 years in my work as a pastor, I’ve been speaking to people 10-20 years younger and 40-60 years older than me each week.

Early on, I learned to listen to another generation. Now, this learning didn’t happen because I wanted to listen (I wasn’t that mature). I selfishly wanted to be an effective communicator and I learned I wasn’t teachable.

Curiosity and empathy helped me to understand the challenge of growing old in a world which feels like an alien planet.

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I came out of college able to reach my peers, but I had to stretch to reach my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I started to listen out of self-interest, but over time, I gained an appreciation for the experience of those much older than me.

In the process, an initial cynicism and antagonism towards those who were older than me transformed into curiosity and empathy which helped me to understand the challenge of growing old in a world which feels like an alien planet. When I understood the fears and motivations of other generations, I learned how to speak courage into those fears and channel those motivations into action.

Fears and Motivations Across Generations

If I had to distill a core fear of the aging generation and a core fear of the emerging generation down to a phrase, those phrases would be this:

“I’m afraid I don’t have anything to contribute anymore.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have what it takes.”

The aging generation is battling irrelevance and the emerging generation is battling insecurity. These fears tend to foster disconnection, as neither fight-or-flight tendencies foster harmonious connection. And if those internal fears weren’t scary enough, we’re often flat out afraid of each other too!

Ironically, though, our core motivation and our primary fears are two sides of the same coin. The Enneagram, a popular personality matrix, reminds us of the power which comes from understanding our fears and motivations for the purpose of self-discovery and transformation.

While older generations may be battling irrelevance and younger generations may be battling insecurity, the core motivation behind both is significance, purpose, and meaning. We all want to make our mark on the world – to be a part of something which matters. None of us want to spend the short life we have on triviality. But, we have to win the battle with our fears first.

Living a Plot-Line

Ironically, this battle with fear is played out in the plot-lines of two movies about generational tensions in the workplace.

In “The Intern,” starring Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro, a young woman is trying to prove she has what it takes, while a retiree is wondering if anyone finds his experience and wisdom valuable. (I wrote about The Intern and Multi-Generational Workplaces in this Thin Difference article.)

Similarly, the movie “In Good Company,” starring Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid, follows a middle-aged advertising executive who is replaced by a boss half his age, in way over his head, and who begins to pursue the newly demoted man’s daughter (played by Scarlett Johansson).

Both movies start by ratcheting up the tension between the star characters, painting them as foils to one another who cannot escape conflict.

But, in each movie (spoiler alert), the conflict eventually leads to collaboration when the two characters move from opposing one another to listening to one another. They discover similar motivations and opportunities to help one another.

The same kind of relational transformation which plays out onscreen is possible in our offices. If we showed empathy for others and built relationships with someone from a different generation, it would transform office culture and improve the bottom line.

A Culture of Listening

Theologian Paul Tillich once said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” And listening is one of the hardest habits in our culture today. We don’t listen to understand. Instead, we listen to prepare our response and be understood. All too often, we’re not hearing someone else; we’re preparing our next comment. This behavior is true in person, but it’s pervasive in social media.

Instead of seeking to assert ourselves and be understood by others, I wonder what would change if we stopped long enough to listen. I wonder if we loved others enough to listen to them and explore their fears.

My greatest fear about the generation gaps in our country and organizations is that too few of us are actually listening to each other. Without listening to another, we’ll never understand one another.

Everywhere we turn, we’re fed a lie that we live in an “us vs. them” world when in actuality it’s just “you and me.” And until we make that shift from “us vs. them” to “you and me,” we won’t hear people; we’ll just fight each other.

If you’ve ever been listened to before, you know how powerful it can be. Truly being heard by someone else is a dignifying act. We bestow value on another person when we listen to them and affirm their experience as valid and real.

We build relationships, win allies, and open up the opportunity to collaborate when we show up to listen, rather than to be heard.

A Reason for Optimism and Urgency

With all of these generational headwinds, I wonder how you’re feeling about the future.

Despite all of these challenges, I am optimistic about the future of our generation gap. According to one recent study, two-thirds of Americans (68%) say they have a close friend who is either 15 years older or younger. I’ve experienced the gift which comes from mentors who are older and wiser than me. And I meet many retired Boomers and ambitious Millennials who share their desire to build a meaningful connection from someone at the other end of life’s spectrum.

In the study I mentioned above, the number one environment where intergenerational friendships form is the workplace, outstripping churches, mutual friends and even mentoring programs. Our organizations are the frontlines of the battle to narrow the generational gap.

But, narrowing generation gaps isn’t be easy, regardless of the location. Systems remain in place where many benefit from us staying at odds. We’ll have to put our phones down and connect eye-to-eye, rather than pixel-to-pixel. Restraining our desire to correct someone else’s bias and letting them be wrong will take more self-control than we might imagine.

Division is easier than unity; bonds are easier to break than they are to form.

However, the future of the organizations we lead depends on us listening to and hearing one another, rather than shouting down or defeating one another.

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When we listen, examine and understand fears and motivations across generations, we can begin to narrow the generational gaps dividing our teams.

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