When generations collide at the office, the Resulting Sparks can be spectacular - and sometimes even illuminating.
Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman didn't exactly hit it off immediately. It was the mid-1990s and Stillman, who was in his 20s and a proud member of Generation X, was preparing to give a presentation to a group of CEOs. Lancaster, a communications pro and a Baby Boomer who was then in her late 30s, was asked to give Stillman some coaching on how to give an effective talk to a group of wizened executives.
Right away they clashed. As Lancaster tried to impart the pointers she had learned through years of experience, Stillman kept interrupting, questioning her approach and advice. A frustrated Lancaster felt Stillman was ignoring time-tested strategies for delivering an impressive presentation. Equally upset, Stillman wondered why Lancaster was so dismissive of his new ideas. Forced to work together, Stillman and Lancaster gradually began to understand where the other was coming from; indeed, by incorporating some of Lancaster's more traditional ideas with his own creative, irreverent touches, Stillman was able to deliver a superb presentation.
More importantly, the two discovered something that would change the direction of both of their lives: "We realized that a lot of our head-butting wasn't because we didn't like each other - it was because we saw things differently," says Lancaster. "It wasn't that either one of us was right or wrong. We really saw the world of work through different perspectives." That original fractious encounter and the realization it spawned spurred Stillman and Lancaster to form BridgeWorks, a consulting firm that helps companies recognize, manage, and hopefully take advantage of the generation gaps that are increasingly appearing in the workplace today; together, they also wrote the book When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work.
Meet Your CoWorker
The nub of their work, then, is helping businesses mesh four distinct generations - each with its own attitudes and expectations around work - into teams that can excel in the increasingly competitive world economy. It's no easy task. Using admittedly broad and imprecise generalizations, here's how experts break down the generations:
Traditionalists, those born before 1945, typically have faith that institutions - be it the government, business, family, or church - have the capacity to accomplish great things, like winning a world war or overcoming the Great Depression. They tend to respect authority and are comfortable in a top-down hierarchy.
Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are marked by their optimism, having been born into affluent times, as well as by their competitiveness - there are 80 million of them, after all - and a preternatural need to challenge the status quo.