Bridging the Generational Divide through Applied Improvisation

Generational DivideBridging the Generational Divide through Applied Improvisation

Lisa Safran & Kate Fitzsimmons

Diversity is something we strive for in most workplaces. Some companies do better than others. When the topics of leadership and diversity are discussed, it is often in terms of cultural awareness. Another topic that gets less attention is age diversity.

The recession kept Baby Boomers in the workforce past retirement age. Now, people are staying in the workforce for a variety of reasons beyond simple necessity.

We are living longer and staying engaged keeps us healthier. A 2016 study by Oregon State University indicates that delaying retirement may actually help us live longer. However, it does complicate the needs of the workforce.

Leading across four generations presents a significant challenge to leadership.

Do a Google search for generational differences in the workplace. You’ll get a long list of sources defining what differences exist.

Knowing why the differences exist between generations might prove more important than simply acknowledging them. This can prove especially important when team building is a priority.

How do you build successful teams across the divide of four generations?

Do you understand me?

You start by understanding why the generations have differences. According to research conducted for Get Ready for Generation Z by Robert Half and Enactus reveal key differences among Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1977), Generation Y (1978-1989) and Generation Z (1990-1999) in the following areas:

  • Communication style: The research indicates that Baby boomers tend to be more reserved, while Gen Xers favor a control-and-command style. Conversely, Gen Yers prefer a more collaborative approach to communication, and Gen Zers prize in-person interactions.
  • Change management: Gens X and Y, according to the research, tend to see change as a vehicle for new opportunities, while Gen Z is accustomed to change and expects it in the workplace.
  • Technical skills: When it comes to building their abilities, employer-backed training is expected by all workers. Baby boomers and Gen Xers most value traditional instructor-led courses or self-learning tools; millennials, which include Generations Y and Z, prefer collaborative and technology-centric options.

Understanding these differences and getting your team to embrace them can promote increased success, in terms of productivity and sales. But all too often, differing opinions can be seen as divisive rather than enriching.

Complicating this whole issue is the way we define the generations. Robert Half and Enactus used labeling that differs from the Pew Research Center. Generations Defined

An interesting article on the topic of another generational niche , There’s now a name for the micro-generation born between 1977-1983, puts a finer point on some differences.

It may help if you think in terms of your customer base. Most companies market to multiple generations, and the insights and strengths you gain from differing staff perspectives can add to your bottom line.

The approach you take, as detailed in the research from Robert Half and Enactus will make a difference in how your team building efforts are viewed.

This isn’t to say your team should remain completely within their comfort zones during training and team building exercises.

Comfort Zone to SuccessWhat is safe failure?

One of the principles of improvisation that can work with inclusion strategies, reaching across generations, is safe failure. Safe failure, means that participants will be stepping gently out of their comfort zone!

In order to have acceptance around different people’s communication styles relating to generational styles – we need to be able to speak up at times, to be able to say what we need, to be ourselves and be bold – this means being willing to take risks. Improvisation games that support safe failure allow us to see how tightly we may be wound around perfectionism. Games like Clap, Snap, Stomp joggle the brain in such a way to create a true challenge to perfectionism and a great opportunity to travel beyond the comfort zone.

By participating as a team in this kind of training, it encourages the team to be more cohesive. You come to see each other with compassion and can be more forgiving in a safe failure situation that may come up later in a real-work situation. There are many applied improvisation exercises that support stretching this muscle!

Another upside of these games is to notice both what might be different or special among the age cohorts, and to recognize all the things we hold in common.  This helps us from easily slipping into an “us” and “them” mentality. Exercises which support identifying commonalities first, supports the team in launching into great risk taking later!

A couple of our favorites, Secret Greetings and 3 Things in Common, are exercises that support connection, collaboration and communication. Please reach out to us to learn more! There are other exercises that help us see how different generations might approach a task or project. For instance, a paired game called Fork and Knife challenges the pair to silently negotiate the becoming of two objects which later during the debrief allows the group to discuss how decisions are made and what happens when there are competing priorities or objectives.

Port Key is a game based on the idea that an object can take you somewhere – as in Harry Potter. In the book series, a port-key is an everyday object that transports a person to another place. So, you may give an object like “grandfather clock” and the receiving player might respond “grandfather clock- that takes me to the entryway in Aunt Jean’s home on Long Island, where we kept all the shoes for winter.” Then that same person imagines the entryway in as much detail as possible and selects another imaginary object to toss to someone else. “Shoe rack. I give you shoe rack.” The next person begins by saying, “Shoe rack, that takes me to…” I learned this game during an Applied Improvisation regional meeting and have found it to be a very helpful exercise to strengthen connections through the sharing of memories. To ensure that you highlight generational touchstones, you can impose a timeframe on it – for instance, think of objects that come to mind when you were between the ages of 12 and 16.

Another exercise that is great for generational team building is to create a Communication Cookbook to support learning about what was “hot” during a generation’s high school years. By this time, you’ve already put the team into small groups and facilitated exercises that introduce the improv tenet concept of “yes, and…” where they get to practice using collaborative language. This exercise about high school opens-up a range of topics – clothing and hair styles, music, headlines, politics, movies, careers, technology, you name it.

When facilitating a session about multi-generational work staff, the participants can be divided into four groups, each group focusing on one of the generations in the workplace. The end product is to produce a poster that includes the values of the generation with a food that was popular at the time.

Generation Cookbook

This exercise can be adapted in various ways. When facilitating a group who wanted support to improve communication and reduce silos, the team was divided into mixed groupings and each person in the group was asked to share their list of values. Once the values were shared, the group determined the shared values of that particular mixed group and created their own recipes for the team in a cookbook page, like these:

In addition to revealing values, this exercise also allows people to reveal aspects of their communication style that feel most comfortable or effective to them.

Some will prefer communicating in person or by phone, while others like email or SMS messaging. Age and technical preferences are often determining factors.

These may sound like subtle differences, but the gulf they create between people can feel vast. Discussing the different preferences and understanding their value, enables teams to learn to meet each other half-way, balancing individual preferences with those of their team mates. That way, the behavior change does not fall to one generation over another

Applied Improvisation is one of several vehicles we use to build safe places to discuss these personal communication styles.

Here’s a tip. Instead of the Golden Rule, Tony Alessandra, author of the Platinum Rule: Discover Business Personalities promotes the idea that we should treat people the way “they” would like to be treated, not the way “we” would like to be treated.

Remember, age-diversity can bring surprising gifts, unique to the age and experience of individual team members. With the right encouragement, your team can build greater empathy and deepen their communication skills.

The goal is to build a team that understands and values one another’s diverse insights and ideas. Applied Improv can help your team get there.