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Gen X-PECTATIONS: 3 Lessons for Communication Turbulence

By Sherri Petro (1172 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on June 23, 2013

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By Sherri Petro, President of VPI Strategies & California Miramar University (CMU) Professor

We’ve got turbulence brewing. Please take your seat and fasten your seat belts. Make sure your seat back and folding trays are in their full upright position. Generation X (born 1965-80), the first generation of latch-key kids, is taking over the leadership reins. And it’s going to be different kind of ride.  We can navigate well if we understand their expectations of communication and how it impacts teamwork and delegation.


It makes sense. Along with our families of origin, we are influenced by the culture around us as we grow up. We take those influences into the workplace.  Sarcastic, freedom-loving, hybrid-creating Gen X likes to do things their own way. We see friction as Baby Boomers (born 1946-64) want Gen X to conduct business by Boomer’s prescriptions.  In this case, Bart Simpson is a long way from Donna Reed!  Or as a Gen X might say….hmmmm….Donna who?


The Price

This author has also seen organizations lose qualified, successful Gen X leaders when Boomers have not appreciated the differences in generational communication and work styles. Sure, they think and do things differently.  Is that so bad if they are leading well and achieving organizational goals? 


Yes, when their behavior is misunderstood and misinterpreted by others in charge, according to Dr. Larry Bienati, a fellow Organizational Development professional and owner of a Northern CA consulting firm. Some of his Boomer client organizations are choosing to bypass Gen X for leadership roles entirely, going straight to the next generation.  Why? Gen X won’t lead and work the way Boomers want them to!


Let’s Get Educated

While the votes are not tallied yet for Gen Ys (born 1981-96) still in college, Gen X is currently the most educated generation in the workplace. They are familiar with learning.  Let’s take a page from their book and get ourselves educated on the generational differences at work here and how to deal with them. To quote the old movie classic, Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”


Lesson #1

Rather than wailing, “Why won’t someone understand us?” Gen X is more apt to concentrate on things they can control, results.  Oriented to results versus process, they have a direct, no-nonsense communication style.  Impatient with flowery explanations, Monday morning weekend woes and too much backstory, this generation has better things to do than spend their life at work, a tell-tale sign of their Boomer predecessors. 


Succinct, relevant bullet points work just fine for them.  No need for pussy-footing around.  That applies to everyday conversation -- and performance reviews. With a thick skin, they handle constructive feedback better than other generations.


Bottom Line Save time. Get to the point -- FAST. Don’t be afraid to say what you mean.


Lesson #2

Generational research tells us Gen X is efficient, works smarter not harder and values leveraging technology in a rapidly-changing vista.  What they perceive as time-wasting activities keeps them from accomplishing more important tasks.


Boomers, having little voice when they came into the work landscape 40 years ago, changed it when they earned positions of power. Boomers emphasized teamwork and two hour meetings where everyone has a chance to contribute. Gen X wants a lot less talk and lot more action.  While others may perceive them as being somewhat abrasive, they simply want progress.


Bottom Line:  Plan shorter meetings, create and honor agendas and commit to tangible progress.


Lesson #3

As the first generation of latch-key kids, parents gave them the creative latitude to get things done at home. They expect the same from their supervisors and their employees now also.  Tensions abound when Gen X feels micro-managed.  They make projects their own.  As long as they honor the decided-upon definition of success, they feel they have the goods to accomplish the goal. Whether in the leadership transition process or just doing work, Gen X is not okay with constant monitoring.


This does not make the Gen Xer an ideal supervisor for the next generation. Gen Y desires feedback, support and frequent check-ins after delegation.  Gen X then has a tendency as seeing Gen Y as needy.


What can the Gen X do when delegating to a Gen Y?


Here are a few questions for the Gen X to think through:

  1. Why did you choose the Gen Y? Tell them.

  2. Why are we doing this project/task? They want to understand the back story.

  3. What is the goal and what is the priority? Make it very clear.

  4. How soon do you need it? Gen Y has different time–sensitivities.

  5. When shall we have milestone checks?


Bottom Line:  Gen X, be very clear when delegating to Gen Y. Boomers, when delegating to Gen X, concentrate your time on the answers to questions 3, 4 and 5 –and micro-manage at your own peril!



Speaking of peril, if we want to decrease communication turbulence, we have three lessons. It boils down to this. We need to understand Gen X’s expectations.  Get to the bottom line(s) and we will all have clearer communication.  



{#/pub/images/SherriPetro.jpg}Written by Sherri Petro, President of VPI Strategies & California Miramar University (CMU) Professor Sherri is a professor, accomplished strategist, organizational development professional and executive coach.  She consulted for 13 years in the for-profit, non-profit, and government sectors after a 16 year corporate career.  She teaches the Strategy Capstone as well as Leadership, Change Management and Business Ethics courses in CMU’s MBA program. Her current passion is educating organizations on how to increase organizational sustainability by leveraging the talents and skills of all in multi-generational workplaces. Sherri offers remedies to misunderstandings that result from different belief structures and lack of coherent communication by creating understanding and making connections at the belief level not only at the behavioral level.


Do you have a question for Sherri?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Comments (16)

Richard Brown posted on: June 24, 2013

There is a huge amount of good info and analysis available about gen x and gen y; and I believe it is wise to attempt to understand the underlying values and differences that have been applied to different demographics. I am a vanguard boomer (1946), and many generalizations have been made about my generation based on historical fact, assumptions and analysis. But a boomer born in North America is a different animal to one born in Europe and other places. I encourage everyone to take the time to study all these trends and be aware of them in everyday working life. I also urge people to treat such information as only a guide to what they might be experiencing around them. People are people and all are individuals. In today's world, our colleagues and their families may originate from any corner of this diverse planet, and geographic and parental influences can often be of greater significance than mere birth-date categories.

Lisa Leverich posted on: June 24, 2013

I was expecting this article to be way off but it describes me as a Gen X'er - I can't stand wasting time, don't like being micro managed, and I'm all about results (I make things happen). Great tips about communications style as I work closely with some Y's. Thank you!

Amy Scott posted on: June 24, 2013

i certainly recognize myself in these points. :)

Asif Shoukat posted on: June 24, 2013

That's a good article, and thank you for bringing up this topic.

I see opportunities in India, China and Middle East because of the presence of young population, and in the US, Western Europe and Japan because of fast-ageing population. In both cases, Gen X will be counted on!

Susan Jakers posted on: June 25, 2013

The article provided an excellent explanation of the generational differences between Boomers and Gen-Xers.

Suzanne Camwell posted on: June 25, 2013

I appreciate this article being a job seeker and also potentially working with Gen-Xers.

Kendell Gardner posted on: June 26, 2013

Loved this article. You nailed it "Generation X (born 1965-80), the first generation of latch-key kids, is taking over the leadership reins. And it’s going to be different kind of ride". I have never thought of the points that you made, but they are so true. Being different (as long as progress and goals are aligned) should be embraced. It is not so important how we get there as long as we get there, and with generation "X" we will probably get there sooner..............

Sue Cann posted on: June 26, 2013

Good insights for communicating with the different generations in the workforce.

Susan LaCasse posted on: June 26, 2013

I'm curious about Gen X managing Boomers. The article looks to the next generation, but not up to the previous. With Gen Xers taking more leadership roles, they are also put in positions of managing long term Boomer employees -- and I expect that has its conflict and communication woes, as well... Thoughts? Experiences? Thanks!

OpenSourceMedia posted on: June 27, 2013

I can say that I am totally Gen-Xer. And to have a clear communication is what I am working out these time.

Heather Stone posted on: June 27, 2013

Hi Sherri,
Fantastic article and some points are so so true--being a Gen-Xer myself, I have to say you've hit the nail on the head about micro management. But question: why do you think as you stated, some Boomers just go straight for the Gen-Y employee? Because millennials are far less dedicated to their work for the sake of doing well than Gen-Xers are (if such blanket statements really could apply), and personally I find the millennials I've come across to be shallow, unfocused, lacking work ethic, self indulgent, arrogant, and hedonistic. I know that sounds harsh--but that has been my experience. I wonder if Boomers and Millennials have that in common, because Gen-X is much more serious, educated, and realistic than either former group. What do you think? And it's odd...I find it's only the Millennials that are out of college to be that way. My son is a late Millennial, '98, and he and his friends are much more like Gen-Xers than like early Millennials. Well, let me know your thoughts!

Lisa Woods posted on: June 28, 2013

Great question Susan. I can say from my own experiences managing Boomers, making a large effort to communicate has worked. Here are the communication tactics that worked best:

- Asking for them to share their knowledge in a formal setting, as well as informal.
- Informing them of activities both that directly and indirectly impact them.
- Asking for opinions and participation in decision making.

As it said in the article, Boomers appreciate the team approach where everyone has a voice. Gen Exers want to move quickly, but in order to take advantage of the skill of each individual, in the case of Boomers, my experience was to give them a chance to voice their views, as well as give them my time...that is...I take the the time to get them caught up so that they don't get frustrated with the speed.

I'd love to hear the experiences of others as well!

Kevan Schlamowitz, Ph.D. posted on: June 28, 2013

Your advice is sound. If management uses good "communication hygiene" (e.g., actively listens, focuses on what message they want the listener to receive rather than what they want to send, etc.), are direct and honest with their direct reports, then the generational issues can be greatly mitigated. Understanding the differences between boomers, Gen X & Y, seem to me quite similar to understanding cultural differences (say, between Americans and Japanese). Respecting and understanding these differences, coupled with thoughtful communication, usually yields positive results.
So many employees complain that their bosses fail to really listen or take the time to make any sort of connection with them that generational differences only add fuel to that fire. It begins with people needing to make genuine connections with peers and those with whom they work.

Phillip W. Smith posted on: June 28, 2013

As born in '75 this article is spot on in explaining how a Gen X'er thinks.

Kathy Bornheimer posted on: June 28, 2013

Great information as it mirrors what I see as a Career Coach. Many of my clients are in Gen X. I actually compare the employment market to a thrill ride at a theme park. It can be more intense than a car ride (indicated in this article). Yes, be solidly secured and "hang on" as you start your ride.

Peter Watts posted on: July 25, 2013

Turbulence indeed, and with the different generations having different approaches to communication tech, you also have to ask how best to communicate the turbulence. Hand them each a phone and watch what happens: Boomers will talk on it, X'ers will e-mail, and Y's will text. Multigenerational mayhem, but great fun if approached with a flexible heart!

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