The “Okay Boomer” phrase dates to at least 2015, but last fall the memes caught the attention of the internet and social media. It was a train that rolled out of the station. Ageism aside, justifications, rationalizations, and discussions abounded, but during the dialogue there were important points on both sides that were dismissed or tuned out. As a typical boomer would say, “I’ve experienced it!”
In full disclosure, I’m nearer to the end of the range defined as “baby boomers” and maybe that’s why I never fully identified with the label. I am more open to succeeding generations, an early adapter of technology, and despise “we’ve always done it that way” responses to justify an action.
I see generational tensions in my consulting practice and found it interesting when ageism was brought to social media. Organizations expressed, “our younger staff is getting eaten up by the older staff, and quite frankly it’s caused some turnover.” Another, “I need to find a way to get them to value each other’s contributions.” The Millennial leader’s perspective? It was “oversensitivity” and over reaction to the expression that was “just a joke.” My perspective? As usual, “there are three sides to every story……yours, mine, and the accurate one.” The “Okay Boomer” train was no exception.
From a workplace perspective, some Boomers weren’t ready to give up the keys to the kingdom and felt they were being “thrown out” and misunderstood. Others said Millennials lacked the appropriate work ethic or respect to drive. As some Millennial’s noted, there was resentment rooted in Boomer’s “mismanagement,” and “not getting it.” They felt it was time for them to move on and get off this fast-moving train. The “third side,” less driven by emotions, sees potential on the ride for each to learn from the other. Collaboration could benefit the organization but pursuing “their way” and dismissing the other perspective was easier. Sound familiar?
In a recent project interaction, I could have provided valuable information to a Millennial based on personal experience. It would have saved significant dollars, eliminated hours of work, and provided a higher caliber end project. They weren’t listening because they had received “one-sided” information and made a decision.
I’ve seen the dynamic throughout my career. The leader is so focused on their way that they are blinded to other options. Ironically, the personal needs of both “sides” built walls between them and prohibited major growth opportunities. So how do we bridge that gap? It really comes down to five specific recommendations.
Question & Connect
Ask the important and relevant questions of the other side while genuinely seeking to understand their perspective. Have a frank and open conversation about the generational barriers, negate the “blame” and bridge the gap by using phrases like “I think,” “I feel,” “I believe,” and “It seems.” Follow it up with, “What do you think?” “What do you feel?” etc. You get the picture? Make sure that both side’s perspectives have an opportunity to be aired without becoming defensive. This ensures no one walks away saying “they never asked,” and gets them engaged, connected, and heard, while surfacing key foundational elements.
Listen & Learn
Listening is somewhat of a lost art and needs to be learned, so take a break from the phone. Bombarded with thousands of messages each day, we live in sound bites and constantly multi-task. Our immediate gratification society has limited patience with listening and sorting out the facts. If you are to open up to another perspective, it can’t be that way in these tense communications or multi-generational interactions.
According to stats from Howick and Associates, “We talk at a rate of 125-175 words per minute, listen at a rate of 125-250 words per minute, but think at a rate of 1000-3000 words per minute. The (mental processing) gaps create opportunities for distraction and failure to listen attentively.”
Active listening includes a positive acknowledgement that you’ve heard the comments, so be sure to respond briefly during the conversation. Make eye contact, take notes and actively engage with the messenger.
Empathize & Recognize
There is nothing more effective in trying to work with the other side than empathy and recognizing their perspective. Putting yourself in another’s shoes will go far in seeking to understand their perspective and change your reaction to them. It may seem difficult generationally, but actors do it all the time. That might not be the emotional level we’re seeking, but it is helpful to remember the perspective. Assume your role and think, feel, and respond as you feel the other side could embrace. As they assess your interest, you’ll recognize that in return, you share some common goals.
Filter & Find
Practicing the three skills mentioned, you will receive more information than you ever needed to know. You may label it TMI but be patient. It is worth the effort to filter the wheat from the chaff, find the seeds for growth. Note the “highlights” of your discussion and file the remainder. Remember, it is better to err on the side of too much information than have future regrets saying, “I wish I would have known.”
Act & Communicate
Tailor, communicate and collaborate on a plan of action using key points you’ve learned. By assimilating a few of their viewpoints in your plan, you will demonstrate they have been heard and position yourself as concerned and responsive. Use the means agreed to be most comfortable to you both to communicate your decisions and plan of action.
Generational differences and ageism can derail goals and throw the organization off track. Granted, there may be limited cases where it is better to have certain individuals abandon the train. However, you want to be certain you’re not losing invaluable experience, taking years to replenish, and putting your organization at a disadvantage. After all, isn’t the end goal advancement of your mission and organization? Take a little more time and incorporate the best of all generations. You will end up back on track!