Managing Diversity – Information for People Managing a Diverse Workforce
By Vincent M. Cramer
Generational Diversity… Are We Communicating Effectively?
We are ALL Members of This Diversity Group
All of us are quite aware of the fact that diversity is a topic of ongoing and deep discussion. Most often the mind reflexively thinks of diversity in light of ethnicity, gender or culture. They are surely elements of diversity. However, in this discussion of diversity our focus will be on generational diversity.
Corporations and organizations benefit greatly from having a spectrum of employees that span generational lines. Most of them already have Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and N-Gens interacting on a daily basis in the execution of their responsibilities. This melting pot of generational diversity impacts group dynamics and affects the contributions and work product of a workgroup, task force, or committee. The expectation of senior management would be that the individuals would work congenially and productively, reach consensus, and deliver the expected results.
Generational diversity is often blended into the organizational structure or the workgroup to resolve issues, generate strategies, and develop plans that are important to the corporation. But, are they really prepared to interact in a productive way? If one observes the daily communication dynamics within a company, one would tend to believe that individuals are relating well despite their generational separation. On closer examination, one would discover that this is more illusion than reality.
Where Is the Disconnect?
In order to understand this a bit more, let’s look into a setting that has entrenched generational separation. It combines a wide range of communication practices in an environment that has been created for learning and in which the goal is the acquisition of knowledge. It is college! It is obvious that the deeper the communication link between teacher and student, the greater the benefit to both. There will typically be at least one, most likely two, and sometimes three generations of separation between them. Professors are obviously aware of this generational separation because it can be measured with a calendar. It is a different matter to quantify the separation in terms of communication, comprehension, and understanding. In general, professors begin to realize that the dynamics with their students have changed. To what degree, they can’t quite put their finger on it.
Having instructed for many years on subjects about which they have great knowledge, insight and passion, the professors have honed their teaching skills to the point at which they operate very efficiently and creatively. But even operating on autopilot, at some point they realize that something has changed. The analogies that they have sprinkled into their presentations are being received differently with each passing year. The anecdotes that have proven so effective for so many years yield only blank faces staring back toward the front of the room. Jokes don’t get a laugh. Knowing that they have a responsibility to effectively communicate with these young minds forces many instructors to look inward as well as outward to find an answer. What, and where, is the disconnect?
Beginning just before the turn of the century, a list was developed and widely circulated to all members of college and university teaching staffs to provide awareness of the generational background of the incoming freshman class. It was, and continues to be, quite enlightening. We tend to forget to which generation we belong because we live in a world of high-speed communications and infinite multimedia.
How many of us have heard someone be described as being in his or her forties, fifties, or sixties, but with a quick mention that these ages are not the same today as when your parents were that age. The message is that in today’s world, people are effectively and operationally younger than people of previous generations were at the same age. In effect, the older generation isn’t as old as it had historically been. Therefore, they are effectively younger and can thus relate better to those who haven’t seen as many sunsets in their lives.
At the other end of the generational spectrum, the youth of today does not need to rely on a word-of-mouth history from their parents for insight into their generation. They simply have to turn on the TV, pop a disk into the CD player, download an MP3 song, or surf the Web. There are more than just footprints in the sand from their parents’ generation; there is a treasure trove of media content at their fingertips. This incredible source of information allows us to cross the generational lines more easily and vividly than our ancestors were able to do. We can relate more effectively based upon this capability.
For the purpose of serious activity and goal-driven objectives, is this enough? Are the older amongst us really younger in spirit, and are the younger actually wise beyond their years? Does the phenomenon of twenty-first-century multimedia communication close the generation gap, thus the communication gap? Is communication truly effective? I propose that the answer is…No! Having the ability to interact with anyone, anywhere, anytime is not a measure of the effectiveness of communication.
It is important that we make the distinction between interaction and communication. Increasing the frequency of interactions and exponentially transmitting greater amounts of data does not automatically yield an increase in communication effectiveness. For example, I am sure that you have seen two speakers of different languages trying to communicate despite the fact that neither can understand the spoken word of the other. For whatever reason, people seem to feel that saying the same thing louder or more often will result in comprehension by the other. Observing people in the throes of this predicament is quite laughable. It is so obviously futile, but we all seem to have the tendency to do it.
Consider that this year’s incoming freshman class, graduating class of 2007, has grown up in a world that has always included video recorders, the Internet, web surfing, instant messaging, and cable TV. In their experience, TV has always had four major networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox. It is not possible for them to imagine a world that doesn’t include CNN, ESPN, MTV, and the space shuttle. The U.S.S.R. is a place the Beatles sang about, not a superpower that waged a Cold War against the U.S. for fifty years. This list gives those of us who are older pause to reflect. Our first reaction is usually one of amazement that so many years of our lives have gone by when we don’t really feel much older. We may realize that we are staring at an hourglass that is showing much more sand on the bottom than we had realized—an hourglass that is becoming as pear-shaped as our physiologies.
“Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of The Way”
In the corporate setting, most individuals are very cognizant of the fact that they will be scrutinized and evaluated as to how effectively they work in a team. Each member of the workgroup will be judged by how productive he or she is in terms of individual contribution plus team success. The desire to be viewed and measured as an exemplary employee in this setting provides the motivation for each member to adapt quickly to the dynamics of the group. Each member must attempt to make contributions to the creation of plans and proposals in a very limited amount of time. Those contributions might come in the form of leadership or possibly abdication. If a member is not in a position to contribute to the team in a proactive manner, it might be best for all that the individual instead be a witness, lest he or she detract from the effort. Most people appreciate the wisdom of the simple mantra “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” There are dichotomies at work here.
Viva le difference!
Corporations have endeavored to implement every program that will enable the company to unleash the creative potential that lies within the ranks of its employees. Only the brightest, most talented and highly motivated people have been recruited. Each is talented, considerate, and works well in team settings. Added to that impressive list of credentials is the fact that the team possesses great diversity. Harmony is felt at all levels throughout the company. The company is well on its way to implementing its corporate objectives and establishing industry leadership. All of the elements for success appear to be there.
Beware! The process is flawed and expectations are nebulous. Realistically achievable goals cannot be set for the team, unless a productive working environment is created for the workgroup. The first priority must be to increase the effectiveness of the team’s communication. Once it has been established that communication across generational lines is very difficult, we then have the ability to formulate a solution. “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” is definitely not one of the potential solutions.
It might appear obvious that the cornerstone of such a framework should be the improvement of communication. What a wonderful environment it would be if each person could communicate with all the others and each of them would functionally comprehend what had been said. For the sake of time, let’s just say that this cannot be achieved in our lifetime.
The alternative approach is to create a working environment that will blend the generations for the simple purpose of working and collaborating effectively. We must be pragmatic in setting our objective. Outside of the need for effective team dynamics let us accept the fact that each of us is forever imprinted by the unique forces and experiences of our generation. Viva le difference!
Creating a Generational-Friendly Framework
An operating framework, which meets this sensible objective, is Cramer's Cube. It is structured in a manner that enables everyone to maintain his or her uniqueness and individuality without feeling the pressure to accommodate the others on the team. Each person’s generational uniqueness is not tempered. It is not allowed to be. The uniqueness of each person, which is embodied in his or her diversity and individuality, is the greatest asset that each will bring into the team. This includes generational diversity.
In the operating environment of Cramer's Cube generational diversity does not need to be discussed. It need only be applied. Some people may feel that this simply avoids a topic that needs to be discussed and resolved. However, think of it in a different context. When groups of people begin to work as a team they avoid discussing many topics that provide no value. If discussed, some of these topics may prove to be distracting or destructive. For example, do we need to put our intellectual credentials on the table so that the rest of the team knows how much credence to give to our inputs? No. Our intellect will be manifested in a pragmatic manner. A person’s ideas and observations will be evaluated on their own merits, not the intellectual credentials of the presenter. In a similar manner, the unique qualities embodied in generational diversity can be effectively and dramatically applied without needing to resolve the generation gap. The methodology of Cramer's Cube makes that requirement moot.
Vincent M. Cramer is the author of Cramer’s Cube. He is also the founder of The Winchester Consulting Group, an Organizational Development and Training Company specializing in the principles of Cramer's Cube and its application to Leadership, Innovation and Diversity Asset Management™. www.cramerscube.com