So what is happening in the workplace? There are probably several attitudinal differences among generations from attitudes toward technology to attitudes toward work. These differences may lead to conflicts or difficult management situations. I think that some of the problems and perhaps resolutions lie in basic social psychology and communication. Interpersonal attraction theory suggest the more we interact, the more we find similarities, the deeper our conversations become, the more comfortable we are with that person. More interaction should lead to a better workplace.
In the workplace we cannot avoid interactions but the frequency and quality of those interactions can vary widely. The social chit-chat, the social interactions before getting down to business, these lubricate our organizations, making immediate and other tasks easier. Why is it that the “no-nonsense” person, the person who does not engage in social chit-chat, rarely builds strong peer or subordinate relationships? It is in these brief social interactions that we find and foster similarities.
As we interact with others in different situations, we use behavioral, social, and verbal scripts we have learned along the way. Think about what we do in meeting a person we do not know. We tend to use safe, low risk scripts, “How about this weather?”, “Looks like it might rain today.” Our conversation and subsequent conversations are like peeling an onion. We gradually expand the range of topics and in so doing, we start to find similarities. “Did you see the Red Sox game last night?”, “Going skiing this weekend?”, “I saw a great movie.” And as we find these similarities, we become more comfortable with each other and a relationship develops.
But what if different generations have different scripts. The Boomer being friendly asks, “How’s the weather?”, and the Gen Xer responds by checking a smartphone for a weather update. My limited search in the communications literature did not find any relevant research studies. But I did find a CBS video on Youtube that may illustrate one generational difference. Perhaps if we could learn useful scripts that work across generations, then perhaps we would interact more and find those similarities. My guess is it would make for a better and more productive workplace.
Image of two people texting from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cell_phones.jpg by Paul Martin Lester, 2009. Used with permission: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en