Exploratory Research &
Workplace communication can be complex, messy, and stressful. Differing viewpoints, challenging communication channels, and contrasting values muddle the way that we work together.
This project explored the challenges associated with multi-generational communication, by diving in to analyze communication and satisfaction differences in a Midwest public school system. Surveys and interviews were used to understand overarching themes, and the mental processes behind them.
Note: This project was done for my Master's thesis, so if 90 page research papers are your thing you can read the entire thing here.
Scholars have studied the way that individual's values impact communication and satisfaction for the past 60 years and, recently, have posited that these values and implications are more closely linked to generational experiences than age or tenure.
The next step was to understand these groups. Primarily, the current workforce is made up of Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials (Generation Y).
(born 1946 - 1964)
Known for strong work ethic, feel achievement is earned through hard work
Most likely to value work over other aspects of life
Prefer traditional, directive management style
Dropped from 49% of workforce in 2005, to 29% in 2015
(born 1965 - 1980)
Known for cynicism, self-reliance, and referred to as a "generation of survivors"
First generation to demand work-life balance
Prefer a collaborative leader, less materialistic compensation
Stronger turnover intentions than Baby Boomers
(born 1981 - 1998)
Known for wanting a more collaborative work environment & socially responsible organizations
Desire to feel valued and inspired by their work
Prefer a communicative leader, plentiful feedback and challenge
Likely to not develop strong organizational commitment, take bigger career risks
With these factors in mind, I developed the following research questions:
Do generations differ in how they receive information from others within their organization?
Do generations differ in how they use communications technology to send information to others within the organization?
Do generations differ in their sources of information within their organization?
Do generations differ in how satisfied they are with their organizational communication relationships?
Do individual members of generations differ in how they feel their generational experience has impacted their communication and satisfaction within their organization?
Woo, that got academic. Here's a doodle for sticking through it.
I modified a couple of existing surveys to assess demographic information, communication methods, satisfaction, and technology use. Millennials and Gen Xers started to line up, for the most part, and had significantly different feelings about how effective communication was in the district.
Although there were often similar disparity levels between what was currently happening and what participants felt like they needed, they felt like they were receiving less information than the other groups.
As I moved into the interview process, things got hairier. Across the generations, participants felt that differences in technology use, adoption, and adaptation were a point of contention. Boomers and Millennials in particular, pitted themselves against one another and expressed feelings of jealousy and animosity.
One Boomer noted,
"A definite feeling from some of the Millennial teachers in other buildings that they don't think I have anything to offer. That, you know, they really do know much more."
While Millennials lamented,
"we're kind of approached as, uh, a little pat on the head of 'There, there, isn't that cute. Thanks for your idea but this is the way we've always done it so this is the way we're always going to do it.'"
There was also a tendency to make negative generalizations about other groups. When focused on their own group, the relied on positive stereotypes or explaining external factors for these behaviors.
financially-focused, well off economically
"hardworking if not hippie dippie"
very aligned with their group
broke the mold on work-life balance and social politics
"kinda just flounder"
somewhat aligned with their group
it's "rough for us to attain those things of the American dream"
distanced from their group
less open than other generations
breadwinners, limited male role in caring for children
"amazing work ethic"
"what years are they again?"
no defining characteristics
entitled, lazy, and obsessed with technology
"were instrumental in getting some of the social justice things going"
too much value on personal lives and not enough on career
Other things to note
It was clear that the differing values, behaviors, and expectations of these groups were creating some hostile communication, but I found some factors outside of generational differences that were partially attributed. These included:
Boomers felt a loss of autonomy and creativity over decades
Willingness to jump ship vs. feeling pigeon holed into a career
Jealousy over pay disparities
Rewards are not as high for younger generations
Understanding some of the miscommunication and value differences between generational groups allowed me to start coming up with potential solutions to alleviate challenges and foster better understanding between peers.
I recommended the following implementations:
By pairing up newer (Millennial/Gen X) employees with senior (Boomer) staff members, the district may be able to instill more regular communication that helps them understand one another's viewpoints.
This can help with:
Assumptions about the others work habits, technology use, and communication policies
Understanding shifting work responsibilities and protocol, and the impacts and challenges therein
Having an external facilitator come in and deliver a training on how to communicate with others about challenges, raise concerns, and suggest ideas may help to:
Lessen animosity and jealousy between differing groups, alleviate generalizations about others
Raise clarity in communication and allow for more thoughtful discussion in disagreements