Today’s guest blog is written by Jennifer Abrams. Jennifer is an educational consultant and co-author with Valerie von Frank of The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate, & Create Community.
From greeting a colleague at the staff mailboxes, to our interactions at lunch in the staff lounge, to our countless after-school meetings, we encounter colleagues of all generations on a daily basis. And every interaction, from those that are brief to those that are lengthy, we have an opportunity to build trust and create community. Unfortunately, those interactions can also become moments of miscommunication that lead to frustration and disagreement.
Just one filter of perception, your ‘generational filter, if understood well, has the potential to help you communicate more clearly. This filter can help you “play well” with other adults in the school. Without it, you might not see how or why things can get awkward. Check out these two examples.
A Boomer took over as principal and immediately decided to ban computers from her leadership team meetings. Instead, she purchased journals for all team members. She believed computers distracted users from 'the work.' Most team members, who were under the age of 40, found the switch unreasonable. They used their computers to communicate, send files to one another and note the tasks discussed in the meeting. A Millennial first-year teacher arrived at his first teacher team meeting with colleagues who all taught the same subject in his high school. The experienced teachers were prepared to share their resources and unit plans with him, particularly on a student research paper they had historically all taught during the fall semester. The new teacher, feeling on equal footing, said he had a different approach to the research unit assessment that he felt would be more engaging and stated he would move in a different direction. His 'announcement' didn't go over well with his veteran colleagues.
The generations ‘gaps’ alluded to in the examples above are real and happen daily. The first step to decrease miscommunications and increase ‘generational dexterity’ is to know more about the four generations working in schools. It must be said that individuals, regardless of generation, bring their styles, influences, and particular perspectives and an identification with class, gender, race, region, family, religion and more. And, some broad generalizations are possible about those born in approximately the same years.
The four generations working in schools today are:
Many of these elder statesmen and women have been in the profession the longest. Given their inclination to stay with one profession, they may be on the cusp of retiring after 35 or more years in the field -- dedication that can shock Millennials, who might not plan to stay in one place or one job longer than a few years. The Traditionalists have seen world wars, an economic depression, and a slew of technological changes.
This generation is represented by educators who have become the anchors of their school, holding together grade levels or departments and providing institutional knowledge. They may be experienced principals or have moved to the district office. Baby Boomers are interested in relationships and outcomes, not just results - a result of the movements they remember from their teens, and their upbringing surrounded by a climate promoting social justice and civic responsibility.
Born in the era of women’s rights, the introduction of the birth control pill, legalized abortion and higher divorce rates, Gen Xers might be a smaller group compared with the generational groups on either side of them, but they leave an impression with their direct style and attitude. Xers respect individuals in roles, not just roles themselves. And, as many HR staff have found, this generation is interested in a life-work balance, which can lead to requests for job shares and part-time assignments.
The Millennials, teachers and administrators who are in their early 30s or 20s, grew up with adults very aware of and interested in how to meet their needs educationally, as well as socially and culturally. Many grew up with tremendous support and constant connection to family members, and they continue to expect similar just-in-time supports and structures within their school workplaces.
Knowing about each generation is a beginning step. A next step is to consider what knowledge one needs so we all can communicate well and collaborate more effectively. Creating ‘relational trust’ that supports student growth (Bryk and Schneider, 2002) requires smooth communications. And yet each of us has ways of communicating that perhaps align with our generational inclinations and get in the way of building better relationships across generations. We need to identify linguistic nuances and use different strategies for different generations. This blog post, one of two on ‘being generationally savvy’, will focus on working more effectively with those elder stateswomen and men in our schools today, Traditionalists and Boomers. An upcoming blog will focus on working even more effectively with Gen Xers and Millennials.
A few tips that can go a big way in collaborating even more effectively with Traditionalists and Boomers.
Watch your grammar and informal language - Many a time a Traditionalist colleague has pointed out to me a ‘that’ instead of a ‘which’ in my writing, or the misuse of a comma rather than a semicolon, sharing their intent to help me be as professional as possible. For many of this generation, good grammar indicates that one respects the work enough to proofread and communicate properly. Younger generations may think it’s ‘no biggie’ to use informal language in emails or communications, but members of this generation might find it unprofessional and be less willing to collaborate with someone at an ‘all in’ level.
Be mindful of levels of disagreement and conflict in whole group discussion - Traditionalists see handling conflict or disagreement in front of the group as unseemly. Facebook, Twitter, and reply-all emails seem inappropriate to many of this generation, as does speaking up loudly in a group. A younger leader asking in a meeting, “Does anyone have a problem with doing A or B?” might not elicit a loud, overt response from a Traditionalist, who probably would prefer to handle differences of opinion in a more subtle way. Offer other ways to communicate perspectives, not just in a whole group setting.
Think “we” - Many Boomers were raised during the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and a time of activism. They value community and group. The word ‘we’ is important and they appreciate recognition for contributing to the bigger picture. One of my Boomer colleagues who has been working “behind the scenes” for years, as she says feels few recognize her contributions or the need for all to go the extra mile to do the hard work and show “we are in it together.” Even informally recognizing the value of individuals’ contributions to the group goes a long way.
Be careful of appearing brusque or unfriendly - Icebreakers, social committees, appreciations, celebrations, acknowledgements and kudos at the start of staff meetings or in weekly newsletters have been common practice in schools for decades. Gen Xers sometimes are viewed as brusque or uncaring because, while they are helpful individuals, they also want to be efficient. Lots of social engagement at 4pm isn’t at the top of their to do list. Their goal is to get through the agenda so everyone can go home. One person’s desire to focus only on work can seem impersonal or uncaring to other generations. Giving kudos and being time sensitive can go a long way toward creating community.
Adding a generational lens to your filters of perception will increase your generational dexterity and provide you ways to work even more effectively with colleagues of all generations. Next time: Gen Xers and Millennials.
Abrams, J. & von Frank, V. (2013). The multigenerational workplace: Communicate, collaborate, & create community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Bryk, A. S. & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Jennifer’s latest books are The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate, & Create Community (Corwin, 2013) and Having Hard Conversations (Corwin, 2009). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @jenniferabrams on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.