Employee Training and Development Across the Generations
Today’s workforce includes people of many ages and backgrounds. So how do you find common ground and provide training and development that’s effective for everyone? Start with an understanding of generational dynamics.
Successful staff development and training relies on successful communication between staff, supervisors, and human resource personnel. Employees and management should feel comfortable with one another, a feeling expressed in phrases like “we speak the same language” or “we’re on the same wavelength”. These are indispensible soft skills that trainers must learn to effectively communicate with new staff and trainees. Many of the things that will help us connect with today’s diverse workforce come with understanding their generational points of view. We all see the world through our own generational filter. The experiences of our youth shape our points of view. To provide the best training and development to our clients we need to understand how to train across generational divides rather than allowing generational differences to short circuit that crucial communication.
We’re all familiar with the typical items that separate generations: hairstyles, vocabulary, music, and clothing. Others are not as easily identifiable. For example, the term “team” has different generational connotations. Should a trainer describe him or herself as a employee’s “teammate” in their training and development? Similarly, the idea of “goals” appeals more to certain generations than others. Which generations should you emphasize short-term goals to? Or, what generation is most likely to be skeptical about goals that are overly optimistic? Each of the concepts has a distinct generational application and we need to know when and how to use them.
Likewise, sending the wrong generational signals can alienate employees. For example, the majority of management is made up of Baby Boomers. The Boomers, like all generations, are comfortable with one another. They speak the same language and understand the same references. Whether they’re aware of it or not, when Boomers relate to everyone the same way they do their peers, they run the risk of becoming identified as “like my parents’ by Generation X and the Millennial employees. The difference in the way Boomers relate to their peers and the way the next generation communicates is an example of a potential generation gap in the trainer-trainee relationship.
Finally, each generation has different needs, attitudes, and approaches to careers and work. For example, more Matures and Boomers are the most loyal to employers while Millennials and Gen Xers expect to change jobs and careers more frequently. Information and advice should be customized to the generational perspective of your client in such a way that fosters a beneficial mutual long-term relationship.
Of course, generational biases are not ironclad and birth date does not dictate personality. In general, however, one’s historical context does impart some shared definitions and expectations that are well recognized and deserving of consideration. Generational context is just one very important part of a human resource professional’s ability to relate to and provide effective training and development to their employees.
Each generation has different needs, attitudes, and approaches to careers and work.
Snapshot of the Generations
• Born 1909 – 1945
• Came of age during the Great Depression and World War II
• Driven by ideals of duty and sacrifice and loyalty
• Place great faith in institutions
• Value quality over speed and efficiency
• Born 1946 – 1964
• The original 'Me' generation
• Came of age during postwar prosperity, the Cold War, and the 1960s
• Focused on prosperity
• In charge
• Work ethic measured in face time
• Committed to “team”
• Seek services that help them regain control of their time
• Concerned with status and individuality
• Born 1965 – 1979
• Question authority and institutions
• Carpe diem attitude
• Dislike hierarchy
• Prefer open communication
• Focus on efficiency
• Loyal to people, not companies
• A tough sell
• Can spot a phony a mile away
• Embrace technology
• Born 1980 – 2000
• Coddled and protected from birth
• Economic uncertainty after living their entire lives in a growing economy
• Extremely tech-savvy
• Gravitate to people who can help them achieve their goals.
• Seek open, constant communication
• Torn between a desire for individuality and the need to fit in
• Want to be like their peers – but with a twist
• Consider global impact of decisions
Making the Connection
Effective communication and training is first and foremost a matter of a human resource professional’s knowledge and skill. “Soft” skills are important in making the client feel comfortable and trusting. Making a connection across generational lines should involve the soft skill of appealing to generational touchstones and avoiding generational pitfalls.
Making a connection across generational lines should involve the soft skill of appealing to generational touchstones and avoiding generational pitfalls.
Matures value sacrifice and duty and they will expect you to “earn” the connection with them, to earn their trust. Matures respect proven authorities and credentials. Be sure that they are aware of your experience, qualifications, and credentials to provide training and that they know how much time, thought, and effort you put behind your program. Matures are often impressed by rewards and titles – if you’re highly qualified, make sure your Mature employees are aware of that – it matters to them.
Quality means a lot to this generation. Emphasize quality in all you do – yourself, your methods, your materials, etc. References, awards, and testimonials from respected sources tend to matter more to the Matures than other generations. The more “time-tested” your programs are, the better. Place less emphasis on the frills.
Matures tend to believe that their own sacrifices, hard work, and seniority have earned them a kind of authority and expect a certain amount of deference and respect for that authority. An easy way to show this kind of respect is to ask them how they prefer to approach certain tasks – asking before assuming will earn trust. They may have communication preferences that differ from younger generations. They may utilize technology more than you would expect. In most cases, the standard options are fine for them. The key is to show respect by asking before proceeding.
Likewise, the Matures like, enjoy, and respect rules. Rules exist to help everyone succeed. And the Matures often have rules and expectations of their own that come from a lifetime of experience. An important element of working with the Matures is to seek out their rules and acknowledge them.
Of course, training should take into account generational approaches to work as well. Matures tend to view employers as authorities and are deferential and loyal to authorities in general. They are less likely than other generations to pipe up and ask questions, even when they don’t quite understand something. They are probably the least likely generation to point out a mistake or error for fear of appearing rude or insubordinate. Making sure they have the chance to be heard fosters an environment of mutual respect and facilitates open, clear, and effective communication.
Baby Boomers value the concepts of “team” and “teamwork.” When training Boomer employees, position yourself as part of their team, working together for effective training and company success. On the flip side, the ‘Me’ generation has a bit of ego to address, so if you are able to offer what feels like unique and individual treatment, you will be more likely to connect. Do not enter the conversation assuming you already understand their preferences – ask. Then try to customize your approach.
Many Boomers are adept at technology, but still value the human touch. Boomers are comfortable with email but have not adopted other technologies, like texting and social networking, as readily as younger generations. Phone calls and face time are likely preferred forms of communication. When communicating with Boomer employees, positive and optimistic language tends to go further with them than with the other generations.
Like the Matures, the Boomers are respectful of titles, awards, and accomplishments. If your Boomer clients are aware of your professional acumen, they are more likely to trust that they are getting knowledgeable training.
Boomers, like Matures, also tend to be loyal to employers but tend to be less deferential. They like to feel like they are part of the team, involved in planning and leadership. If possible, try to involve them in those aspects of the training. They tend to be ambitious and optimistic. If possible, the track of employee development should point upward, to bigger, better, and more important responsibilities. And Boomers like rewards. Employees who complete phases of training and development should be rewarded with certificates, giveaways, or even small bonuses.
Generation X has learned to be skeptical of just about everything. Be straightforward with them – don’t try to sugarcoat anything. They’ve been hit with slick advertisements since they were infants and can spot a phony a mile a way – be straight and clear. They will be suspicious of any “pie in the sky” scenarios or goals. Address their innate cynicism with back-up plans for the inevitable time when a problem arises. Xers expect problems and they will appreciate your willingness to concede that plans may go awry.
Gen Xers tend to research and “fact check” everything themselves. They will Google you and the company and the training program, if they haven’t already. They seldom rush into any decision hastily. They will find out everything they want to know on their own. Be prepared to answer “why?” and to refer them to additional resources. View your encounter as an information exchange. Xers crave knowledge and peer feedback. Once you have provided all the information you can and answered all their questions, they will be more open to communication and training from you.
Don’t try to become their friend first and then their trainer or supervisor. Xers usually want to see how you work and then will become friendly after you’ve worked together effectively. Once you have gained respect as an honest and valuable resource, Xers will remain fiercely loyal. In communication, Xers are very comfortable with technology and expect you will be, too. In fact, Xers are just as adept at using the internet for work related matters as younger generations.
At work, Xers are not as fiercely loyal as Matures and Boomers to employers but they are not at all unreliable. They are used to working toward goals on their own and can usually be counted on to complete tasks that are assigned to them without constant over-the-shoulder supervision. They respond well to independence, fair play, flexibility, and work-life balance. If possible your training model for Generation X should incorporate all of those concepts.
Millennials are just now entering the workforce. While they are at the beginning of their career arc, they are the second largest generational and, therefore, a significant proportion of new employees.
They have always been told that they are “special, unique, and different from everyone else.” Build rapport with Millennials by recognizing their individuality and accomplishments – build up their self-esteem. As a whole, Millennials have not had much practice being decisive. Be a trusted guide who helps them make decisions that are good for their career path.
Millennials are peer oriented. They want to fit in but be an individual within the group. Peer feedback and involvement in the training process will open up communication. They want to feel good about what they are doing within their peer group. If you have experienced Millennials on staff, make them part of the training program for Millennials.
They also want to feel good about what they are doing on community and global scales. They will be interested in an employer’s altruistic aspects, such as a recycling program, community involvement, and volunteer opportunities. If your company takes part in any programs like this, make it part of the training.
Millennials are adept at all communication technology. In fact, they are dependent on it. They are accustomed to their text messages and emails being acknowledged or answered instantly and are daily users of social networking and social media. They can be impatient with those who don’t appreciate the efficiencies offered by these tools. Effective communication with Millennials will involve some or all of these technologies.
Like Xers, Millennials are more likely to think of themselves as “free agents” than older generations when it comes to employment. They also appreciate flexibility and work-life balance. In some cases, Millennials can appear demanding of or “entitled” to involvement in leadership and privileges that usually comes after years of experience. If your training model can afford some flexibility, freedom, and some sense of important responsibility within firm guidelines, it will go a long way toward establishing a connection with your Millennial staff
The Comfort Zone
Understanding where employees are “coming from” is crucial to establishing a successful management-workforce relationship. In addition to providing an effective training program, it helps to understand employees’ generational profile. Each generation has a “personality” as well as approach to employers and careers. A working knowledge of generational differences gives you some tools to begin each relationship on a footing of trust and understanding. Once you and the employee are in that comfort zone, you will have a chance to offer your knowledge, expertise, and advice to someone who will have the confidence to use it.
Generational Insights is a US based company that began as a research company, and today provides insight and solutions for the demographic and generational trends impacting businesses and workplaces worldwide. With expertise in hiring, managing, motivating, recruiting, retaining, and selling to Baby Boomers, Generation X, the Millennials (aka Generation Y), and the Mature (aka The Silent Generation), they train sales leaders worldwide on how to relate to and sell to different generations.
Written for TrainingIndustry.com