New Zealand Law Society - Bridging the workplace generational gap

Bridging the workplace generational gap

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“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” – Henry Ford

Towards the end of day one of my first post-university law job, I had a conversation with the boss:

Boss: “Tell me what you’ve dug up.” After giving my findings, he replied …

Boss: “Now, my first employer gave me some worthy advice which was ‘Never expect. Always INSPECT!’ ”

His helpful but gruff recommendation landed with a fairly hefty thump. I learned something that day … and my self confidence took a backward step.

Years later, I’m the boss. It’s 9:00am and in saunters a young staff member hired a week earlier for a temporary assignment. I call her aside:

Boss (me): “Now you’re aware that we start work at 8:30?”

Staff member: “Oh yep, for sure, but I need to sleep in later than others …. I’m doing this Circadian Rhythm sleep thing.”

Boss (me): [speechless]

These are fairly trite examples of older – younger work colleagues talking past one another or in a jarring way. Yet they reveal a generation gap of sorts.

They point to shortcomings. More significantly they point to lost opportunities – opportunities for better collaboration between supervisors and the supervised, for good work-life balance, constructive feedback and great leadership. Also in how performance and productivity might be bettered, or mentoring and succession planning taken to the next level.

Reducing this gap requires an understanding of people’s diverse career needs (including their need for recognition and belonging) and in supporting them to gain a foothold aspirationally. In these areas, change or improvement is sought. Yet many experience a lack of connection and cohesion between themselves and others – more senior, more junior – such that change or improvement remains adrift.


The bulk of literature vis à vis workforce generational issues provides little more than “camp like” categorisations; where individuals are described and labeled according to their generation: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials (Gen Y). Or, as some wit once put it, those who question nothing, question everything, question questions or who have had enough questions.

In many work contexts, the gap is more simply that of longer tenure versus lesser tenure. Kurt Vonnegut captures it:

“What is it that slightly older people want from slightly younger people? They want credit for having survived so long, and often imaginatively, under difficult conditions. Slightly younger people are intolerably stingy about giving them credit for that ….

“What is it that slightly younger people want from slightly older people? More than anything, I think, they want acknowledgement, and without further ado, that they are without question women and men now. Slightly older people are intolerably stingy about making any such acknowledgement.”

At the core of this generational gap, there is a war between legacy and potential. So writes Ron Carucci, a Seattle organisational leadership consultant (, in describing those emerging as fearful of missing out and fighting for their potential. In doing so they allow inadequately for the efficacy of those more senior, who in turn fear obsolescence and fight for their value at the expense of the aspirations of those emerging.

Broadly, what’s amiss? What might change?

An all consuming focus on the differences between generations – rather than what they have in common or might combine – is commonplace.

It’s exacerbated by the lazy tack of labeling or stereotyping (eg, Generation X, Y). Usually it lacks specificity and is short on substance. For the commentator, it’s an indulgent place … where he seeks entitlement or comfort. It’s easier to pigeonhole than to understand fully. Understanding takes more than judging, pointing or telling. It requires engagement and fronting up. Which in turn calls on courage. Courage demands vulnerability.

What’s missing, too, is willingness and responsibility to convert awareness into action. Taking a risk to build something tangible and worthy beyond mere my or his/her generation gazing and gossip. Building something instead that leverages generations plural.

Confronted with the generational divide, some do look to address matters. Often to fix the problem. This is invariably past driven, mostly meeting the needs of just one generation. A more front footed, cross generational strategy is:

  • to look for the opportunity that the “divide” presents, rather than to treat it as a problem;
  • to resist either/or, my way/your way thinking;
  • to adopt a dialectic approach, ie to work with apparent opposites; and
  • to embrace diversity.

These items have in common a broad objective. A desire to make relationships – between diverse people with different experiences – work better (more “right”) in the pursuit of a shared interest or goal.

Being right or in right relationship?

Dr Parker J Palmer, a notable American sociologist and educationalist, and an activist for raising the bar of democratic government in action, maintains that “democracy has more to do with being in right relationship than with being right”.

He also says: “It’s important to ask ‘Why am I here?’ To win a debate. Or to create a container that can hold an ongoing ‘dialogue of difference’. ”

He also says:

“Yes, we often differ on what ought to be done. But when we begin by sharing our loves and doubts instead of arguing about solutions – about ‘the places where we are right’ – our … conversations become more productive. Sometimes they lead to surprising agreements about solutions.”

So I ask:

“How and when is your organisation better served by ‘right relationship’ (as put up by Palmer), in preference to its personnel being right?.

“Is your organisation about a courtroom, the board room or negotiating table around or in which you’re the independent, expert professional rewarded for being right or is it something else better served by you being a more interdependent, relationship building participant?”

Awareness and understanding

To choose a right relationship approach requires good self awareness which, in turn, lifts awareness of others. Self awareness is a platform for a “dance” between oneself and others in a more integrated way. Armed with that higher relationship between self and other, it’s easier to adopt a cross generational approach to bridge the gap between those of longer and lesser tenure. We’re more awake to our own experiences being … our own. That no amount of seeing the world our way is going to make or have it be someone else’s. This reality ‘shower’ wakes us up to more open, willing and constructive ways of relating to others similar and dissimilar.

Despite having shared objectives (eg, to deliver the goods, satisfy the client, do a good job, perform well, be professional ), we still experience things differently, have different perspectives/perceptions. Typically, we don’t “get” this.

Despite shared objectives, we often don’t stop to first understand one another, what we’re each experiencing or seeing – consistent with Stephen Covey’s notion of “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. For if our understanding of each other is not clarified it can result in one or more participants shutting down or contesting matters. Here are four questions which help when this occurs:

  • What’s beneath (or gives rise to) that concern or issue?
  • What more can you tell me?
  • How would you capture or sum up what you’ve just said?
  • What other concerns or relevant information do you have?

A well articulated – sometimes assertive – request will also make a difference in crossing the divide.

“When (state the topic) happens, I feel (name the feeling). I ask that (make the request ).”

Work with the words, language and tone until it feels comfortable; not too structured or imposing, but open. The vital component is to express the feeling. That’s often the all important point of connection between the giver and receiver of the request.

The value in these questions or request is in not imposing our experience on the other party. Instead we simply reveal it or we ask the other party to reveal their experience. This approach demands each participant be responsible for his or her own experience and remain open equally to the other person’s. Understanding between parties with different perspectives is then enhanced, from which relationships are more likely to prosper.

Calling a truce between legacy and potential systemically

Ron Carucci says:

“We know, and research shows us, that when the generations are effectively working together, marketplace value exponentially increases. The bottom line is this: We’re better together.”

and …

“Bridging the generational leadership divide will happen when a truce is declared between legacy and potential and we begin fighting on the same team, for the same cause.”

Calling a truce takes leadership. Mr Carruci recommends a systemic problem-solving approach to leadership – one where leaders see problems not through their own eyes or roles, but from the perspective of the organisation as a whole, including where its divisions intersect. This systemic approach is, in part, the enemy of the generational divide.

Cross generating bridging approaches and tactics

Mr Carucci also advocates several “above the line”, traction getting solutions:

shedding labels and assumptions;

“looking for” the other person/generation in oneself [Gen Y are sometimes described by Baby Boomers as entitled, lazy, ungrateful and disloyal. Yet, these words were also used in Life magazine in 1968 to describe Baby Boomers];

authentically interacting with people of other generations, eg reaching out and asking them for help or for them to share what they’re proud of;

seeking out others’ similarities with oneself and then engaging in or around these; and

initiating and engaging in projects or activities that cross over the generation divide.

And there are others such as Kate Berardo and Simma Lieberman (“Strategies for Cross-Generational Relationship Building”) who emphasise mindset strategies. These include approaching differences with interest not fear, adopting a learning orientation, being mindful of assumptions, putting oneself in others’ shoes.

They also recommend behavioural strategies, including being flexible, avoiding generational jargon, being attentive, practising active listening and showing respect. Business leaders often share about the value in open forums for sharing ideas, in “blended”, face-to-face or digital online learning, in capturing people’s different knowledge bases and in communicating to the organisation what makes up people’s different skill sets.

Stephen Covey, the notable personal and business leadership educator and author, provides a steer on how to cross the generational divide in the “public victory” portion of his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

These might be regarded as a little dated. Yet they’re still highly compelling when actually applied. Mr Covey’s “public victory” habits are Think Win – Win, Seek First to Understand Then Be Understood, and Synergize.

Mr Covey also urges operating within our Circle of Influence, as opposed to Concern. At the heart of these character driven practices is mutuality: of benefits, respect and solution making. They also have us focus on what’s within our control and invite us to engage interdependently. They’re inherently relationship building, founded on kindness and courage.

It is uncomfortable

To be kind, to be courageous requires self awareness and vulnerability, articulated convincingly by the wholehearted leadership advocate, Professor Brene Brown, University of Houston (refer LawTalk 820, 7 June 2013, p18).

To bridge the generational divide, to be a cross generational leader is uncomfortable. It involves challenging the norm, risking failure. Professor Brown provides a leadership “manifesto” of what emerging generations (EG) may seek in senior, established leadership. It includes a call for leaders to be willing to:

  • look beyond mere EG performance and productivity, and to encourage/engage in the development of EG talent, idea generation, and passion;
  • create space and opportunities for EG to show up, to learn, be inspired, connected, purposeful, curious and engaged;
  • engage fully and honestly with and alongside EG, with courage and respect; and
  • to give effective feedback and to build on EG members’ strengths and opportunities for growth.

In committing to this or any other version of this “manifesto” it would be invaluable, too, if established leaders communicated their manifesto to the EG. Then, applying the strategies of the likes of Mr Covey and others, for both groups to work collaboratively, to bridge the divide.

Others who provide insight on how to bridge the generational gap include:

  • Georgeanne Lamont, the author of The Spirited Business (2002), wherein she describes 12 principles likely to lift inclusivity and cross generational engagement in an organisation. These include principles such as having the marginalised be more central and belonging, in drawing on diversity, in generating both financial and people wealth and worthiness “alongside” one another. Ms Lamont also encourages problem solving in groups, challenging those with disparate interests to contribute and for the group as a whole to look for useful “intersections”.
  • Professor David Cooperrider (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland ), an organisational development and appreciative inquiry expert, speaks of the potential of an organisational culture and mindset where the individual is regarded as Exceptional (where everyone is regarded as an exception to the rule, ie unique), Essential (that is, allowed to express and grow his or her essence rather than being centralised or stereotyped) and Equal (able to and expected to assume a responsibility for being heard).

Certainly, no one strategy is an answer in itself. No one size fits all. It’s important to test, experiment and combine or customise different approaches.


“The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” – JW von Goethe.

This and other insights are helpful as are adopting a range of strategies for bridging the generational gap in the workplace.

However, perhaps a way forward lies more in recognising that organisations and people’s participation in them is about mutually beneficial shared objectives. Otherwise why would they bother coming together? For those objectives to be realised it requires competent interaction between the organisation and its people. But an organisation can’t interact as it is not a person. It requires its people to interact for it, to be it. It’s the intelligence, mindfulness, bravery, humility and heart of all of its people which must be ignited and employed so that people front up to one another and bridge the generational gap.

We know what we need to know. Look at your experiences in organisations. Look at when you felt – a little or a lot – on the outer, making up the numbers, going nowhere, not heard or without a voice or dispirited. Then consider when you felt seen, belonging to, cared for, encouraged, respected and valued?

What was the difference? Therein lies the answer.

Martin Wilson is the Principal of Selfmade Coaching ( His experience includes 24 years in legal practice, partnership in a large commercial law firm, 11 years running his own commercial law practice, and a period as group manager communications and human resources for a large government agency. He has been a professional coach since 2001. He is a past director of the International Coach Federation’s Australasian arm. Martin works with leaders, managers and professionals in both the public and private sectors.

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