What to Do When Your Team Acts Their Age

Last Updated Oct 30, 2007 11:36 AM EDT

"What we have hee-yuh...is a fail-yuh to commun'cate."

Question: Do you recognize this quote from a) that fine talkie Cool Hand Luke, with that young whippersnapper Paul Newman, b) the beginning of In Living Color's runaway hit "Cult of Personality" from the days of my youth, or c) "what the ^%#$ are you going on about?"

As many team members and managers discover at one point or another, there is more than one right answer to most questions, depending on whom you ask, and in this case, what generation they're a part of. But just because your teammates' answers to questions and their methods of problem-solving and communication might be different than yours, doesn't mean you can't work together effectively.

Maybe you've been working on a team for a while and everything was just fine, but then the boss went and hired a few people who just don't fit in with the group the way their predecessors did. Now the team is outside its comfort zone and it doesn't necessarily feel as good as they say it's supposed to. There's a disconnect, cliques forming and perhaps even grumbling about favoritism from the boss.

In the past, new hires were a little more predictable, as most people had to put in hard time to get a managerial job, and the young'uns usually came in through support roles, internships or entry-level positions. But with today's rate of technological, social and operational change, you find a lot more youth in coveted positions and managerial roles, often attaining those posts ahead of established colleagues.

To add to the confusion, "respect your elders" doesn't mean the same thing in the corporate world that it does away from the fluorescent lights and cubicles. The reality is that no one is going to get up and give you their seat, give you slack for inappropriate comments or find it charming that your out of step with the times. You may have to take orders or ask for advice from someone young enough to be your son or daughter.

Likewise, just because you are up on the most up-to-date modes of communication and the latest rich-media marketing theory, doesn't mean you should be calling the shots for your team. In fact, it doesn't even mean that these things will work for your team.

A recent survey by Careerbuilder.com showed that the generation gap between Generation Y and their elders is reported to be wider than between preceding generations, largely due to the rapid adoption of web-based communication over face-to-face interaction and the technological sea change that has so rapidly altered product and service delivery.

A thought-out and tempered approach to the challenge of an age-diverse team means focusing on sharing information, focusing on strengths and fostering inclusion. Here are a few ways to do so:
1. Communicate their unique contributions. Presumably, regardless of their age, all the people on the team were brought on or kept on for good reason. These reasons should be clear to the rest of the team. If everyone knows that they have unique strengths, they won't be quite as intimidated by other team members' skills that they don't share. Having team members run workshops or give presentations allows you to highlight these skills without the awkwardness or discomfort of listing them in a meeting or email.
2. Keep everyone in the loop, if not in your inner circle. It's okay to have trusted advisors or buddies around your age in the office, even if you're the team leader, but you should never focus on them to the exclusion of others. The feeling should be that your door is open to anyone and everyone's ideas are equally valued, even if not equally sought. And if a team member seems hesitant to make his or her voice heard, ask them for their thoughts every once in a while.

3. Focus on the good more than the bad. Play to people's generational strengths more often than their weaknesses. Like was said before, if you haven't fired a person, it's likely because their contribution outweighs their shortcomings. Yet, more often than not, we only hear of our shortcomings from our managers. The seasoned veteran is too set in his ways and can't grasp the new technologies. The young turk is too enamored of his own ideas and doesn't have the wisdom to seek other opinions. Sure, Ol' Graybeard might need a little help navigating the company wiki, but he's been talking down angry clients for decades and may have some advice for Young Miss Tech-Savvy.