Intergenerational Miscommunication

By: Thomas S.D. Getchius

That old saw about being "divided by a common language" sometimes seems as applicable across an office hallway as it does across the Atlantic. In this month's Associations Now case study, a Boomer boss and a Gen Y employee struggle to understand one another. (Titled "Lost in Translation" in the print edition.)

Editor's note: See guest commentary by scrolling your mouse over the speech bubbles that appear in the text.  This month's commentary provided by Deah Shaw and Eric Lanke, CAE.

Jen pressed her finger on the enter key and let out a sigh of relief. "Done," she muttered under her breath.  I agree that this situation is more a communications gap than generation gap, but the generation gap between Mike the boomer supervisor and Jen the millennial employee is certainly not helping the situation. As revealed in my detailed comments below, although Jen may have unrealistic expectations about the workplace she finds herself in, it is Mike who bears the lion's share of responsibility for the breakdown in communication. —Eric Lanke, CAE

She had just reworked her department's 2011 budget information for the second time this week, now presenting the material in a one-page memo instead of the slide set she had given to her boss, Mike, on Monday. Her college finance and accounting classes had definitely come in handy. "I know that he'll be pleased with this rewrite," thought Jen, as she scanned the memo one last time.

Finally, Jen stood up and peeked over her cube wall. "Would you mind looking over this memo I just wrote, Ben?" she asked. "You seem to have good luck when it comes to writing reports for Rich."

"Do you think it's what he wants this time?" Ben asked as he scooted his chair into the hallway between their cubes. "You didn't seem too happy when he told you he wanted the memo instead of the presentation."  As is shown later, Ben isn't simply lucky when it comes to writing reports for his boss, Rich. It took him some time to learn Rich's preferences, just as it took Rich some time to learn Ben's natural abilities. This is normal. Strange that Jen wouldn't perceive this. —EL  If Ben could sense Jen was unhappy about her boss's comments, then how was her reaction perceived by her boss and others? She needs to maintain a professional demeanor when given criticism. —Deah Shaw

"I hope so. Mike told me that the Finance Committee prefers a memo and then the supporting documents, not a presentation linked to the supporting documents. I just wish he told me that is what he wanted in the first place."  Sounds like there was a communications breakdown between Jen and her boss. I suspect Jen did not ask the parameters of success. —DS She looked over Ben's shoulder as he glanced through the memo.  Jen has a point here. If there were specific formatting requirements, Mike should have communicated them to her. As we'll see later, he did not. —EL "Do you think the committee really looks at the material in detail?" she asked.

"Not really," Ben responded. "For the four years I've been here it seems like we pull the numbers together, then we hand them to the senior staff, who sit in the conference room and make a few edits and decisions. Then they put it in front of the Finance Committee, and we all carry on about our day. Not once have I been asked to make a change to my stuff."  I'm sure this is the way the process looks to Ben. I'm also sure this is not really the way the process works. An employee who does not understand how his work fits into the bigger picture can't make independent contributions and is a liability to the effective functioning of any organization. The fault here lies with Ben's supervisor. —EL  Don't listen to the Bens of the world. Always do the best work you can possibly do. Even if you think no one is paying attention, someone always is. —DS

"Well, to maintain my sanity, I hope that Mike likes what I put together," said Jen. "Do you think you could look it over on your train ride home and give me some feedback? I'd really appreciate it."

"I'll send you a text tonight and let you know what I think," said Ben as grabbed his coat. "Don't worry. I doubt he'd make you redo it a third time; he told you specifically what he wants. I'm sure it'll work out fine."

Gathering Advice

"I think it's going to be fine, Dad. Mike told me he wants a memo, not a presentation." Jen sat on the couch in front of the television, her computer open on her lap and her cell phone pressed between her ear and her shoulder. There's a basket of millennial cliches here: electronic multitasking with the TV, computer, and cell phone and seeking reassurance from Dad. They have a basis in reality, but I suspect they were added to this case study to heighten the differences between Jen and Mike. —EL "Let me send it to you to look at." I don't think it's wise to have so many people looking at your work. She should have just shown Mike. Critiques should come from an objective source. —DS

After a moment her father said, "OK, got it. I'm opening the attachment now."

"What do you think about that second paragraph? I wanted to provide a short narrative on the changes to our programming and the cost implications. I tried putting it in bullets, but I think it's much easier to understand written out." I know it happens, but this strikes me as a little extreme. What do you think, Dad? Second paragraph, third sentence. Comma? Or semicolon?—EL

"I like the way you've laid it out," he said as he scrolled through the document. "You've done a great job on this report. Even if he doesn't like the way you laid out the information, you know you did your best, and that's what really counts."

"Thanks, Dad," said Jen, as her phone buzzed in her ear. "Hold on one second." Sure enough, as promised, Ben had sent her his thoughts on the memo. "Oh, good—my coworker Ben just texted me. With advice from the two of you, I'm in great shape!"

The View From the Other Side

Mike reached for his shirt pocket and pulled out his BlackBerry. "Just in time," he said to Rich as the two of them stood up to leave their weekly director meeting. "Jen just sent me her draft memo. I hope she did a better job on it than she did on the presentation. The Finance Committee chair would have sent me an email with just question marks if I had sent that to her for review."  This comment makes me question whether Jen really did a poor job or if Mike simply did not like the new format she presented. Or did he not want to field questions from the chair?—DS

"Why did Jen write you a presentation and not a memo?" asked Rich as they walked toward Mike's office. Because Mike didn't tell her to write a memo. —EL

"I'm not sure. When Jen and I met last week, I mentioned to her that I needed some talking points when presenting this material to the Finance Committee. She smiled, nodded, and said that she'd get me the material by the end of the day. I'm just surprised that she put it in a slide set instead of a memo like everyone else does it. I told her to review the materials that we submitted last year, so I thought the standard format should be clear." Mike was not specific enough in his direction. If he had precise formatting needs, he should have made them clear. Jen is an individual who wants to use and show her creativity in the work that she does. She clearly thought that by doing more than what others had done she would impress Mike. —EL It appears that Mike likes how things were done in the past ("how we have always done things") rather than looking at the merit of a new perspective. —DS

"Hasn't it almost been a year since she started here?" asked Rich.

"Nine months yesterday," said Mike. "I hired her fresh out of college with no experience. She has a degree in communications and seemed to be the most passionate and enthusiastic candidate. I remember her saying that she was interested in establishing her career in an association and staying for the long term, but now I'm beginning to wonder if she'll really stick around. She's always asking questions about the work that I'm doing and asking if it's OK for her to volunteer in other staff groups across the organization. It seems like she's not happy and looking to do everything else except what is important to me. The advantage of working in an association is the variety of hats one gets to wear on a given day. While Mike sees her interest in other areas as fickle, I see that Jen is trying to find out where her talents best fit her association. —DS I guess we're still trying to find that sweet spot of her doing what I need her to do, what the organization needs her to do, and what she wants to do."

"Well, it is the first time that she's been through the budgeting process. If she's right out of college, it's likely that her only related experience is balancing a checkbook, and with online banking, I'd venture a guess she doesn't even have to do that. Has she been performing well otherwise, or is this a recurring problem?" asked Rich. This is key. Rich should have asked this first. —DS

"I can only think of a handful of cases where I've had to correct her work. And her second attempt is always better," said Mike, as he rubbed his hands on his temples. Further evidence that it is Mike who is not communicating his needs well in this case. —EL "All right. I'm going to give this memo she sent a thorough review so I'm prepared to provide comments when I meet with her tomorrow."

"Well, just remember that she hasn't quite been here a year, which is about how long it takes to just get used to a job," said Rich. "I remember that Ben and I had some of these same growing pains when he started, but once you hit that year mark, it gets better. Now he anticipates what needs to be done without me having to tell him." Yes, some learning curve is natural. —EL While this is a good trait, employees should not have to be mind readers. Trust and open communication are the things that allow employees to anticipate needs, not just the tenure of the employee. —DS

Mike smiled. "Thanks for the pointers, Rich. I'll let you know how it goes after Jen and I touch base tomorrow."

Final Draft

Jen quietly tapped on Mike's door. "Are you ready for me?" she asked.

"You're a few minutes early," said Mike as he turned from his computer to face her. "Why don't you have a seat and we can go over a few things." Jen took the chair in front of his desk and readied her notepad and pen as Mike pulled a folder out of the stack on his desk.

"I reviewed the memo you wrote for the Finance Committee," Mike began. "I think it's in much better shape than the presentation you sent me earlier this week. This comment would take me off guard. It was Jen's belief that she only needed to change the format and not that there were other glaring issues. —DS I'm glad that you took the time to do a thorough analysis and write it up for me."

Confused, Jen looked up from her notepad. "In better shape? I though you just wanted me to change the format for your presentation to the Finance Committee?" It is imperative for Jen to press the issue of what Mike means by "in better shape." Besides changing the format, what other issues were apparent in her draft?—DS

"I needed the memo format. It's how we've always prepared material for the Finance Committee. Just because it has always been done one way doesn't necessarily mean it has been done the best way. —DS The analysis you wrote was great, too. I did notice a few errors in calculation that got carried over from your original slide deck. You'll see the specific numbers that need fixing in my edits." He pushed a copy of the memo across the desk.

Jen quickly scanned Mike's handwritten comments, making a mental note of the corrected figures. "Now I know for next time that you'd like a memo instead of a presentation when you present material to the Finance Committee. But why didn't you tell me about the incorrect numbers when you reviewed the slide set I sent you? I could've saved you some time in your review this go-around if you'd given me more information." A reasonable question. Jen is trying to meet Mike's expectations but is having a difficult time understanding what they are. —EL

"I thought it would be a better use of my time to have you do the work and present me with a final version so I'm not always getting caught in the details and missing the bigger picture. It's hard for me to stay focused when I have to look through version after version identifying minor text edits and corrections when it's really my job to review and approve the final version." said Mike, leaning back in his chair. A supervisor's reality but very poorly communicated. A supervisor has to effectively leverage the work of those who report to him. But this requires him to be clear about what role and specific responsibilities the employees have and his expectations for their performance. Doing so helps make sure individual contributions add to rather than detract from the vision they are pursuing. Supervisors often forget that employees can't read their minds. —EL

"I think I understand," Since they have previously had a miscommunication, I would make sure I understood rather than just thinking so. A follow-up question or two would clear up any confusion on Jen's part. —DS said Jen, nodding. "Anything else you'd like me to work on?"

Mike's phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID. "Oh—I have to take this call. I can't think of anything else for you at the moment. Keep up the good work, Jen, you're doing a great job," he said as he picked up the receiver and placed it against his ear. A squandered opportunity to work toward clarity on this important issue. Hope that phone call was worth it. —EL

Thomas S.D. Getchius is senior manager of clinical practice at the American Academy of Neurology. Email: [email protected]

Deah Shaw is a student in the 2011 class of ASAE's Leadership Academy for Young Association Professionals. Email: [email protected]

Eric Lanke, CAE, is executive director of the National Fluid Power Association, Milwaukee. Email: [email protected]

This article is part of a series of fictional case studies developed for Associations Now. All people, places, and memos contained herein are hypothetical and based entirely on the imagination of the author. No real events are intentionally reflected.

Research on Intergenerational Workplace Interaction

This case study is based in part on research conducted by Thomas S. D. Getchius, Lauren Fernandez, Samantha Alvis, Daniel Pace, and Carrie Drake as part of their graduation project as members of the inaugural class of ASAE's Leadership Academy for Young Association Professionals. For more information on the results of their research, see "Young Staff Seek More Contact With Execs," from this month's issue of Associations Now.

Thomas S.D. Getchius