How to listen, understand, and leverage different generations' strengths

Tom Moriarty says leaders would do their best to listen across generations and avoid snap judgments.

By Tom Moriarty

I came across a quote and found it very amusing. It goes like this: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Any idea who said this, and when it was said? It was the philosopher Socrates in the fifth century B.C. It’s funny because no matter what period in history you look at, there seems to have been a level of discord between generations.

Why have there been such differences over the years? It’s because all people have a value system that is unique and tied to what is going on in history. We all have, and continuously use, a value system at a subconscious level. A person’s values govern his or her behaviors in interacting with the surrounding world. The collection of behaviors and interactions create a culture.

People make their way through the world by gathering experiences and deciding whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, normal or not normal. Understanding a person’s values can be helpful in that it allows us to interact in a way that will best meet our current and future needs.

Values are developed at a very early age. Psychologists say that during the first few years of life, we all go through an imprinting period. During the imprinting period, we are programmed with a simple behavioral information such as dinner table manners and how to address people politely. Behavior programming happens through observing our parents and learning how adults behave. As we get older, the imprinting of more complex behaviors occurs due to additional inputs.

As we move through the preteen years, a process known as intense modeling occurs. From about 10 years of age, heroes become a critical source of value information. Heroes can be immediate family members, teachers, or just about anyone. Heroes can be people from history, sports, performers, musicians, or, God forbid, reality TV.

Moving through the later teen years, another type of programming occurs. This is referred to as socialization. Social interactions become critically important to teens. Teens try new things because “everyone else is doing it.” A major source of value programming during this period is our friends: We socialize with others whom we tend to share the same values, so common values are reinforced.

By our early 20s, a person’s values become more locked in, and for the rest of their life they have generally fixed opinions about what is good or bad, right or wrong, normal and not normal. Beyond this point, it is difficult to persuade someone to change their value system. Once we move beyond the programming period and the values are locked in, they provide a framework for how we relate to the world.

This is a primary reason why the armed services like to get recruits who are in their late teens to early 20s. It’s much easier to mold values (honor, respect, and devotion to duty) for an 18-year-old person than for a 25-year-old person. It’s also why you see a lot of political action organizations focusing on college students.

Because we all traverse the years of our lives with different inputs, we all have different viewpoints and wide ranges of values. Many “experienced” workers make snap judgments about younger people. While experienced people have seen what works and what doesn’t, they sometimes don’t consider that technology or some other factor has changed. Younger folks are less encumbered by history.

What all this means is that we should be conscious of the way we approach others from different generations or different backgrounds. Most workplaces have people ranging in age from their 60s or even 70s down to those in their late teen years or their early 20s. Millennials should not dismiss older workers who are the embodiment of the history of their trade or profession. Older workers should be accepting of younger workers who have less work experience but who can approach problems with different perspectives and skills. They may have interesting solutions.

Give each other a break. Listen, understand, and leverage each generation’s strengths.

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