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The 3 C’s for managing across generations

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 July 2020

Generational conflict isn’t new. Real-world issues not only come to define generations but can shape how entire generations view and relate to authority, rules and regulations – and to the workplace in general.

And if that workplace is the family dairy farm, it can hinder the farm’s operation. Generational divides can separate families, frustrate business operations and keep the dairy from functioning optimally. When two or more generations work closely together to ensure the success of the business, bridging the generation gap is imperative.

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Dr. Lisa Holden, Penn State Department of Animal Science, focused on best practices to account for generation differences, improve communication and collaboratively resolve conflicts during the recent “Managing with Multiple Generations” webinar. The webinar was part of Penn State’s Dairy Management Mondays webinar series. According to Holden, there are five generations represented in the workplace today:

  • The pre-1943 silent generation, now a mere 3% of workers, was influenced by World War II. They are loyal workers who respect a traditional workplace chain of command.

  • Baby boomers, those born 1942-1964, are workaholics who don’t want to retire. This generation represents 29% of today’s workforce.

  • Generation X, known as the sandwich generation, has both the demands of children and parents, and primarily seeks a work-life balance. About one-third of the workforce are these independently minded gen Xers.

  • The millennials, born 1977-1997, require feedback, are technologically inclined, are creative and thoughtful, and value flexibility. They also represent about one-third of today’s workers.

  • Generation Z is technology-driven and comprises a mere 3% of the workforce today.

Strategies for communication

Recognizing generational differences is the first step to effectively working together. Developing strategies to value everyone’s life experience and seeking resolutions which keep every generation productively engaged requires the “3 C’s” of working together: comprehension, communication and collaboration.

“We know we have generational differences,” Holden said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t build some bridges rather than walls. The 3 C’s of working together really get at that.”

1. Comprehension

This involves understanding what the other person really means and grasping their perspective. True comprehension means moving beyond the emotional reactions and assumptions we often make. Asking questions – in particular, asking them to explain the “why” behind their requests and desires – is the best route to understanding. Recognizing and acknowledging the other person’s concerns accurately is the first step toward any resolution.

“All too often, we’ve said the words, but nothing has happened to move the situation forward or make the situation better,” Holden said. Without comprehension, those words don’t really mean anything.

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2. Communication

Simply stating what you want, need or expect is not effective communication. Communication is a two-way street and requires speaking and listening effectively. And effective listening doesn’t happen without effort. True communication requires a conducive environment without distractions and dedicated time to actively engage in conversation.

“Don’t have important conversations on the fly,” Holden said.

Set aside time in a quiet place. First, state the purpose of the conversation, list the points you want to make, and then ask the other person for acknowledgment. Focus on why the issue is important to you, what you want to accomplish and how you want to accomplish it. Ask if the other person can agree to try it or has any concerns.

For example, those from different generations may be at odds with their reliance or acceptance of technology. In reality, the technology may not be much different than what they are doing on paper, but it might save time. Or it might make access to more useful data possible, and that data might be valuable in daily decision-making.

Clearly demonstrating what you’d like to do with the technology, explaining why you think it would work and showing how it can be implemented – along with asking for any concerns the other person has – are the keys to effective communication, which can bring about collaborative change.

3. Collaboration

This isn’t compromise. With compromise, everyone loses at least a little bit, Holden said. Collaboration is finding common ground and solutions that work for everyone. It’s collaboration, not compromise, that needs to happen when negotiating the important things.

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One strategy to achieve collaboration is to acknowledge how the other person feels, tell them how you or other people you admire felt in similar situations and then explain what, in your experience, has worked in those situations. Using specific examples and the “Feel, Felt, Found” strategy to guide their decision-making process can often be effective.

Managing multiple generations with differing viewpoints, life experiences and expectations of the workplace structure can be difficult. Older generations have experience. Younger generations have enthusiasm and creativity to bring to the table. Managing with the “3 C’s” can bring about understanding and agreements which work for everyone.

“You’re looking for common ground: What can you agree on? It’s not always easy. It takes time,” Holden said. “There is tremendous opportunity to take advantage of everyone’s expertise across this continuum if we structure conversations better.” end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food systems topics.

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