Bridging Generation Gaps to Build Better Teams and Business

Circle of Six Hands Grasping One Another in Unity
My younger son recently pulled off a poor imitation of Superman during his cross-country practice. He managed to launch himself face-first into the concrete and came up streaming blood.
As the mother of two boys, inexplicable accidents, bodily fluids, and foul smells are accepted facts of life. I no longer rush to offer immediate medical attention or words of comfort unless something is on fire or hanging at a disturbing angle. I now consider farting a love language.
But I had to bite my tongue when my brain caught up with what I started to say to Tyler as I surveyed his bloody face:
“Don’t worry, son. Chicks dig scars,” I managed to not say at the last second.
The self-censoring is a product of what most small business owners will rate as one of their top challenges: managing people. As both a woman and a boss in a post-#MeToo world, I’m much more sensitized to sexist language and cultural bias than when I entered the workforce.
I may have Millennials to thank for that.
When I first launched my business 21 years ago, the HR side of things was a cinch. I was the sole employee. As my mechanical testing business grew, so did my staff. I brought on my husband about a year later. As I added test frames, I added staff and square footage, both of which brought issues I really hadn’t learned about in school.
I’ve learned the hard way that building teams of motivated, productive employees is equal parts science and art. It’s also just as critical to building a business as having an effective product/service and turning a profit. Without people committed to your company’s success, your likelihood of achieving success dwindles dramatically.
Most small business owners will rate hiring and keeping the right people as one of their top 10 greatest challenges. For me, it’s No. 1. I want a safe, efficient, welcoming workplace where the team feels appreciated. I want people to be happy to be at work. I want them to be there for more than just a paycheck.
I have the best intentions, but I sometimes feel like I’m paving the proverbial road to hell. At times it feels like someone gets offended no matter what I say or do, particularly when I’m dealing with different generations. What a Baby Boomer wouldn’t think twice about putting in writing can be grounds for a lawsuit with a Millennial.
Boomers were at one point the largest generation, but Millennials have now surpassed them. As a member of Generation X, I’m caught between what is essentially a grandparent/grandchild age and culture gap.=
I decided it was worth the spend to bring in an outside professional to help me better understand those gaps and build some bridges. Gary Ganz, president of TMC Inc., is an organizational development consultant. He came to Empirical armed with TTI Success Insights and based partially on the DiSC behavioral profile—in addition to 30 years of experience in assessing and improving the workplace.
The level of data he divines from the results of profiles and interviews is mind-boggling and team-building. With insights into what makes people tick, we’re able to run a more finely tuned HR machine. We didn’t just learn about individuals. Ganz explained some of the shared generational traits and expectations I’ve been struggling with throughout my career.
“That’s the key, for managers in these companies to be interested in the ‘you’ factor—what that person is about and what they want to do with their lives,” he said. “You’ll get more performance out of that than anything because you’re paying attention to them as an individual. If you factor in what generation they’re from, that helps you with their development plan too.”
We’re all unique individuals, but there are certain traits that tend to define members of specific generations, he said.
“The key with any of these generations or any employer: You want to engage them,” Ganz said. “Understanding the behaviors, the motivators of teammates and coworkers and employees is vital. It’s absolutely vital.”
Baby Boomers (1946-1964):
The product of the post-World War II baby boom triggered significant social change, but as a group, they are extremely career-oriented. They tend to believe more hours equals better performance, and they’re typically in charge because of their age. More than any other generation, they expect job feedback from a 360-degree perspective—boss, peers, and subordinates. They are the original workaholics, Ganz said.
Generation X (1965-1984):
Ganz said my generation is the best-educated, most independent, and most skeptical. We’re next in line to step into leadership positions as Boomers age out. We tend to consider ourselves free agents rather than company loyalists. We’re extremely goal-oriented, but that really means personal as opposed to company-mandated aspirations. We led the dot-com boom, but we’re not digital natives.
Millennials (1984-2004):
This is the generation that doesn’t really have a concept of life without the internet, and one of their greatest fears is boredom. Ganz said that’s partly why Millennials are so team-oriented; they’ve been sharing information about themselves on social platforms for most of their lives. They have a strong sense of social justice, and they want the companies they work for to support causes they believe in. They value diversity in the workplace, and they’re always looking for new challenges.
They’re also more puzzling. I was raised by Boomers, so I understand them better. I admire Millennial creativity, their commitment to what they believe in, and their fresh perspectives. As a manager, I often find them more high-maintenance. Ganz said that’s part of the generational divide.
“The Boomers really like teamwork and cooperation, that’s where Millennials and Boomers come together,” Ganz said. “Gen Xers are much more independent; you have to work hard at making them a good team member.”
My generation also has a tendency to jump in and take over if we don’t like how a project is progressing. It’s a short-term fix that creates long-term issues, Ganz said.
“That doesn’t teach the other generations very well, nor does it place any value on them,” he said. “Developing your people needs to be job No. 1, so you need to set boundaries and expectations and let them do it.”
Potential points of conflict arise between Boomers and Millennials over the idea of what constitutes a strong work ethic. Boomers tend to expect longer hours than Millennials. Millennials aren’t as motivated by money. Generation X wants more recognition, but a hands-off management approach. Both Boomers and Generation X are goal-oriented, but have different approaches to achieving those goals. Millennials are more focused on the overall impact they can have, Ganz said, and they’re reluctant to commit.
For me, commitment is an issue. I appreciate young talent, but I also know it takes me at least six to nine months to train a technical position. If that employee only stays for two years, almost half their time is spent just learning the job.
Knowing more about how this younger demographic sees the world, how our perspectives mesh and clash is helping me re-think how I develop and engage my employees. We’re now moving beyond just performance reviews and digging into development plans for our team to make the most of the talent that supports our business.
“[A career development plan] goes a long way toward keeping them in the ball game,” Ganz said. “When you manage them, you expect performance but if you challenge them and show them it’s an opportunity to make an impact, you’ll get the performance.”
Dawn Lissy, Founder and President of Empirical Technologies
Dawn Lissy is a biomedical engineer, entrepreneur, and innovator. Since 1998, Empirical Technologies Corp. has operated under Lissy’s direction. Empirical offers the full range of regulatory and quality systems consulting, testing, small batch and prototype manufacturing, and validations services to bring a medical device to market. Empirical is very active within standards development organization ASTM International and has one of the widest scopes of test methods of any accredited independent lab in the United States. Because Lissy was a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, she has first-hand, in-depth knowledge of the regulatory landscape. Lissy holds an inventor patent for the Stackable Cage System for corpectomy and vertebrectomy. Her M.S. in biomedical engineering is from The University of Akron, Ohio.