Bridging the communication gap across generations

Scott Zimmer
Scott Zimmer

Different generations, different expectations. What you thought you said—or emailed or texted—may not be what the recipient heard.

“At one point or another, we all have had a moment when we failed to connect with another generation,” Scott Zimmer said. “What attracts one generation very often turns another generation off. The challenge—with colleagues, with students, with patients—is to create an environment where all feel valued and eager to contribute.”

Zimmer, a generational researcher with BridgeWorks, explored ways to bridge generation gaps during the Opening Session keynote address on Monday morning. CHEST members, like most hospitals, academic centers, and medical practices, includes multiple generations. A few are traditionalists, born before 1946.

Baby Boomers, the largest generation, were born between 1946 and 1964.

GenXers, who make up the bulk of the workforce, were born between 1965 and 1979.

Millennials, the up and coming workplace generation, were born between 1980 and 1995.

GenZers, born between 1996 and 2010, are a major presence in the academic world and are starting to move into the workplace.

The difference between the generations is not age, Zimmer explained, but experiences. Everyone is shaped by pop culture, news, politics, and other events during their formative years. The effects persist over a lifetime.

Take attitudes toward NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Baby Boomers remember NASA as the agency that put humanity on the moon in 1969. GenXers remember NASA as the agency involved in the Challenger explosion in 1986.

“Boomers got pride and patriotism and trust in institutions from the moon landing,” Zimmer said. “We Xers got doubt and skepticism and sadness as we sat in school and watched the Challenger explode with a teacher on board and our teachers crying. Boomers got a great step forward, Xers got Reagan trying to console the nation.”

Those formative experiences shape attitudes across domains, including work and communication styles. And what seems perfectly normal to one generation may infuriate another.

“As leaders, you have to move through the stereotypes and meet these different generations in ways they understand and respond to,” Zimmer said. “Work ethic is one of the biggest flash points.”

Boomers grew up in a crowd, Zimmer said. They realized early on that in order to stand out, they had to excel. That meant being at work before the boss arrived and being the last to leave. Face time is important and work is all about sacrifice.

“It was Boomers who took the 40-hour work week and blew it up to 60 and 70 hours,” he said. “We’re all paying for that.”

Xers saw their parents sacrifice all for work and responded with work-life balance. Work is all about efficiency and saving time so they don’t have to spend so many hours at work.

Millennials don’t even think work-life balance. They think about life.

“Relationships and family and experiences are as important as work,” Zimmer said. “For Millennials, it is not life or career, it is life with career. They value flexibility in work schedules because they have a life and are determined to live it.”

Work styles and preferences are reflected in feedback preferences. Quarterly or annual reviews were created largely by Boomers for Boomers. Other generations respond differently.

Xers want efficient and effective reviews—cut to the chase and be absolutely specific.

Millennials want immediate and encouraging feedback.

“If I’m not doing something right, tell me now,” Zimmer said. “Don’t wait another five and a half months. And don’t just tell me what’s wrong. Show me how to make it right.”

Communication styles are another flash point. The conflict goes back to how different generations learned to communicate.

Boomers grew up with face-to-face communication and telephone time. Chitchat and pleasantries are important. There is always time for a phone call.

Xers grew up with pagers. They didn’t wait for phone calls, phones waited for them to return the call. Answering machines trained them to be concise and efficient.

Millennials grew up with email, chat, and texting. Communication is more casual, shorter, and personal.

Zers grew up with cell phones, which they used almost exclusively for texting and other screen-based communication. They are less familiar with face-to-face communication and less comfortable.

“I don’t have to use emojis and multiple exclamation points, and I can’t be put off when my younger colleagues or clients use them,” Zimmer said. “Whether you are dealing with colleagues, patients, students, or family, focus on getting the message across in a way the other person will understand and respond to.

“Every generation brings something different and valuable to the table,” he said. “It is not about right or wrong; it is about how we can bridge that gap to widen the conversation.”