Potato, Potahto, Don’t Call the Whole Thing Off—Communication for Multi-Generational Teams
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
S. Clement
Carling Animal Hospital, Ottawa, ON, Canada

There is much discussion about the need to be aware of varying attributes of different generations when having discussions in the workplace. Sifting through all of the information that is currently available is daunting, to say the least. A great many theories exist regarding generations and what approach is required for communication. You may feel that you don’t relate well to people of other generations in your hospital, which makes communication difficult to impossible.

Generational theory was first proposed by Karl Mannheim in his essay, “The Problem of Generations,” in 1928. More recently, Neil Howe and William Strauss have been credited with coining the term “Millennial.” Can communication be successfully handled without knowing the differences between generations? Yes, it can, but a bit of insight is sometimes helpful.

Let’s start by defining some of the generations (or perhaps more appropriately, “cohorts”) within your hospital. I would never recommend that you generalize anything, so it is important to realize that these are just guidelines and should not be held as absolutes.

Baby Boomers

Born between 1946–1964

In general, this generation is very loyal to brands and to their chosen career. Many stay in the same job for their entire professional lives and “live to work.” They tend to be workaholics and expect everyone to have the same work ethic that they do. They get annoyed when that isn’t the case. They are committed, respectful of authority and employers.

Gen X

Born between 1965–1984 (alternatively 1966–1976)

“Balance work with family time”

This was the first “day care” generation, with both parents working outside the home (also known as the “Latchkey Generation”). Because of their workaholic parents, they are more likely to be seeking balance in their lives. This generation seems to prefer the use of email for workplace communication.

Millennials (aka Gen Y)

Born between 1982–2004 (alternatively 1977–1994)

“Never confuse your work with your life”

Protected by their parents, this cohort has been more sheltered than the proceeding ones. They are looking for balance between work, life, self-improvement, and community. They have high expectations of management to mentor and assist them to achieve their professional goals, and they want a challenging, rather than boring, job. They are ethical leaders and mentors. They prefer feedback often and in a timely fashion. (As an aside—these are not kids! The oldest members of this cohort are in their late 30s, and highly productive members of society in a great many cases!)

Gen Z

Born between 1995–2012

The “always on” cohort

Highly educated, technologically adept, and socially conscious—they are early adopters, brand influencers, and social media drivers. Start thinking about these folks! They will be entering your workplaces soon (if they haven’t already!).

So now we are faced with the fact that we have a very challenging task—to communicate with all of the different cohorts within our practices (and also have them relate to, and communicate with, each other).

Does communication truly depend on knowing the other person’s cohort well, or can we distil it down to a system that works for everyone? The latter is easier (and I’m all about simplicity in my current time-strapped state!). It also means we don’t have to learn about the new ins and outs of Gen Z (or in fact, Gen AA, or whoever is coming after them) in order to communicate effectively. So, given that we need great communication when we are providing feedback or coaching, let’s use that as the basis for forming a system which can be generalized across cohorts.

Step One

Communication needs to be safe. Think about how you communicate with your team. You can easily trigger a negative response (even if you didn’t mean to)!

  • Avoid questions that start with “Why.”
    “Why did you think that was a good idea?” vs. “What was the outcome you were hoping for?”
  • Avoid following praise with the word “but.”
    “I really thought you did a great job with Mrs. Jones’ complaint, but I need you to understand that you could have handled it better.” vs. “I really thought you did a great job with Mrs. Jones’ complaint and I’d like to discuss how we can make it even better next time.”
  • Think about your tone and body language—do you roll your eyes, get impatient, or interrupt?

Step Two

Know what kind of feedback your team member likes. This should be known for each member of your team (preferably at the time of their job interview)!

“How do you know that you’ve been successful at treating a pet?”

Possible Answers

  • “I just know”—This is someone who is internal and doesn’t need external feedback to know they’ve done well. This doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t acknowledge their efforts from time to time. Some may be uncomfortable with praise from an external source.
  • “I get thanks from my client or my boss”—Here’s the person who needs praise and feedback from an external source. You need to provide it often, and in timely fashion!
  • “The pet gets better”—This person is data driven and will base success on numbers. Provide feedback with facts and numbers! Often in conjunction with either a or b.

Notice that this works for any member of any cohort (with the added bonus that you are listening to them and not imposing your perceptions on them).

Step Three

Effective communication

This starts with being a good listener and not just giving advice. Be interested, not interesting. Show curiosity.

I love the coaching system laid out in the book The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. It is well worth a read, and I tend to carry a copy with me most of the time. It’s a very simple method of asking questions and listening.

  • What’s on your mind?
  • And what else?
  • What’s the real challenge here for you?
  • What do you want?
  • How can I help?
  • If you’re saying “Yes” to this, what are you saying “No” to?
  • What was most useful for you?

This is a highly adaptable system that also works via email if you have someone who prefers that method of communication.

In closing, don’t put yourself into a corner with respect to communication. You have the tools to be able to have meaningful conversations with any member of your team, if you remember that they are not a category!


Speaker Information
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S. Clement
Carling Animal Hospital
Ottawa, ON, Canada

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