Understanding the motivations and experiences characteristic of specific generations can lead to improved communication and more successes in the workplace.
That was the theme of a workshop held this week at Southern Miss’ Hattiesburg and Gulf Park campuses, titled “The Impact of Generations Differences in the Workplace.” It was sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi’s Office of Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity.
Dr. E. Gordon Whyte, founder and program director of the university’s Executive Master of Health Program and a faculty member in the Department of Community Health Sciences, and Ashley K. Atherton, M.P.H., program manager for the Executive Master of Health program, served as co-facilitators for the seminar.
Becky Woodrick, director of Southern Miss’ AA/EOE office, said the seminar was conducted because of the growing awareness in the workplace of differences in how people communicate. “The way a 22-year-old receives and processes information could be significantly different from the way a 52-year-old does,” Woodrick said.
“A greater understanding of these differences may also go a long way toward helping avoid perceptions of age discrimination in the workplace.”
The seminar focused on the varying characteristics of current generations in the workplace and development of understanding about what impact these differences have on productivity and teamwork. A lighthearted “name that tune” game highlighting cultural differences and tastes between generations, where participants identified popular songs from various decades, was included.
Whyte and Atherton examined four generational groups and their characteristics, including traditionalists (fiercely loyal) boomers (confident), Generation X (independent) and Generation Y (extremely technology savvy). These generations are influenced by a wide range of experiences, including wars, economic booms and busts, political upheaval, crises and varying stages of technology.
Two issues where generations diverge, loyalty and response to leadership styles, were examined closely. On loyalty, the attitudes ranged from traditionalists giving it without question to a lesser extent from boomers to generations X and Y expecting it to be earned by their employer. This divergence is a possible reflection of changes in attitudes and levels of trust in institutions over the last century.
The viewpoint of the employee across generations on leadership goes from the traditionalists who are seen as rarely questioning authority in the workplace to those in Generation Y who respond best to bosses who value relationships. “Generation Y is looking for leaders who are mentors, not authoritarians,” Atherton said.
But while the generational descriptions often give analysts a good picture of how people think and behave over time in the work setting, Atherton warned against assuming they fit neatly into those parameters.
Implementing strategies that bridge communication and cultural gaps between generations among co-workers and between bosses and employees are critical for success in the workplace, Whyte said. Those include teaching, valuing feedback and learning about and from each other in order to foster mutual respect. This kind of work force is typically committed to producing a quality product or service, Whyte said.
“You want to get to the point where you stop categorizing people, when they’re no longer ‘them’ but a part of the team.”
Dr. E. Gordon Whyte speaks during a seminar on the impact of generational differences in the workplace Wednesday on the Southern Miss Hattiesburg campus. (Marketing and Public Relations photo by David Tisdale)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.