In the words of one of the great orators of our generation, ‘Parents just don’t understand.’ Will Smith said it best in the 80s and the lyrics still hold true in today’s workplace as Gen Y works alongside their parents’ generation with Gen X squeezed somewhere in the middle.
Personally, I sometimes feel like a 40 year old middle manager stuck in a 20 something body. Other days I feel like a TED-Talk-quoting, white board drawing, buzzword dropping MBA hipster stuck in a stale corporate environment. For the past two years I’ve worked at a growing startup that’s had growing pains between different generations. We have the baby boomers at the top who have worked with each other for over a decade; and we have the kids who were offered a position to start once they graduated from undergrad. There is no better depiction of the generational differences than with our coffee machine. I wrote an earlier blog post about how we tend to dream of startups with free food, cafes and everyone wearing jeans. And I must admit I think that good, free coffee is a nominal cost to keep your employees happy. That’s the Gen Y in me speaking. Yet the boomers look at the coffee machine and put out a jar for everyone to drop a dime in any time you drink a cup to share the costs. A dime? Who even intentionally carries change anymore? The boomers look at gourmet coffee (or any grade of free coffee for that matter) and see a sense of entitlement or taking – which I can equally understand. So for the first two years we had an old school coffee pot you’d see at a breakfast joint and a jar on top that’d occasionally rattle with a coin a couple times per week. People drank without putting in change and many brought their own coffee from home. Then finally some cultural challenges bubbled to the surface and management asked what could be improved….low and behold – the coffee situation. One week later a big fancy Keurig appeared to the excitement and surprise of all the Gen Y employees. However, the office will not provide coffee; staff can bring in their own K cups and enjoy the machine at their own expense.
So we upgraded our coffee machine? Big whoop. This was a very small decision in the scheme of our strategy, culture and growth. Yet it reveals the big differences in ideologies and work place perceptions of our diverse staff. This was just coffee – imagine benefits, compensation, culture and promotions all being evaluated through these same lenses. Such is the reality with today’s corporate cultures where the norm is to have 2 or even 3 different generations with very different ideas about how to win at work.
In order to work well together and succeed, both generations have to consider their own biases and lenses they look through. We have to give up being right, consider the generational differences, listen to the other groups and compromise on the other side of comfortable. Otherwise Gen Y, Gen X, and The Boomers will go to work every day butting heads and go home every night wondering why the other side just doesn’t understand.
Thoughts? Have you worked out generational differences at work? Or what’s the best approach? Feel free to comment, disagree, ask questions, or get your #hashtag on. And tune in next week when I discuss the most unexpected lessons from my MBA.