Alisa Grafton, Networking Expert, Speaker, & Educator. Author of “Great Networking”
Today’s workplace is like no other workplace that we have experienced in the history of humanity: up to five generations of people can collaborate at any one time. Such collaboration cohorts could include a representative of Silent (the Traditionalist) Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y (the Millennials) and Generation Z. This unprecedented amalgamation of divergent viewpoints and different attitudes often gives rise to misunderstandings and misconceptions when it comes to carrying out various tasks.
Unsurprisingly, generational differences also have a significant impact on the levels of communication within an organisation. For example, what is presumed to be the norm by a representative of one generation, becomes a source of exasperation to someone who comes from another generation. With each of the generations convinced of their rightfulness, communication often breaks, and a conflict arises.
The way a generation perceives the different elements of the world has much to do with the factors affecting its representatives when their personalities are established: certain formative events have a significant influence on a generational identity. In other words, there is an objective reason why members of different generations can have such fundamentally different views on the same subject.
In the context of networking, this divide often prevents people of different ages from coming together. In practice, it can often be observed how those within the same generational cohort gravitate towards one another, leaving little space for others to join in. Whilst unarguably smoother than interactions in multi-generational groups, networking within the same generation often leads to a restricted number of connections, limiting the potential of every networking effort.
When we interact within the same age cohort as ourselves, we avoid getting another generation’s perspective on a multitude of issues, and this will limit our visibility of both problems and solutions. Our deep-seated thought patterns and assumption, amounting to unconscious bias, make it more likely for us to gravitate towards people in the same age bracket and/or the same hierarchical level in the organisation. Consider the scenario where partners often gravitate to talk to other partners, associates find common grounds among themselves, and trainees create their own pockets, whilst the support staff are often left on the margins.
This tendency is as instinctive as it is counterproductive: instinctive because we are likely to find more in common with our generational peers; but counterproductive because – when networking – arguably, we stand to gain the least from connecting with those in the same age cohort.
Networking is a highly valuable process whereby we develop connections with the people who will simultaneously enrich our life and whose life we will enrich by means of a mutually giving relationship. Whilst finding your tribe within a peer group is very important, it is often the professional relationships with those that are more senior or more junior on the career ladder that bring the biggest insights. This will be the kind of insights that have the potential to transform organisational culture and question long-standing and outdated modes of working.
That is why I am advocating a more conscious approach to intergenerational networking. Recognising the existing challenges of networking – especially in the post-pandemic world – and acknowledging the additional difficulties that talking to a different generation presents is the first step. The second step is to consider and adopt certain purposeful attitudes that will enable professionals to create more welcoming – and ultimately more inclusive – environments.
What are these purposeful attitudes? Here are some points to consider:
- Generational differences are real, and they affect not only our beliefs and ethics, but also our preferences towards communicating and prioritising work tasks. Accepting that there will be different points of view – and that they all have the right to exist – is a solid start.
- Adopting the attitude of curiosity is an effective strategy. How often do we realise that if only we had known the background of a situation, we would have thought differently of the outcome? The same thinking is helpful when we are talking to someone from a different generation, whose ideas we do not agree with. Why do they believe what they believe? What is the background behind their thoughts? The answer to these questions often leads to some interesting discoveries.
- Speaking to a member of a different generation is an excellent opportunity to expand our horizons and to learn. It is impossible to be a good leader if we do not understand the motivations behind those we lead, and it is unfeasible to progress in a career if we do not appreciate – and respect – the perspective of those in charge. The leaders that have strong collaborative ties with the people of younger generations in the organisation – and not merely view them as hierarchically inferior – have their fingers on the pulse of what’s next. And this is a powerful position to be in.
- Remember that the obvious differences are often eclipsed by more obscure commonalities: we are not as different as it might initially seem. It is a habit to look for what connects you above what separates you. Did you go to the same university? Have you grown up in the same part of the country? Do you share a common love for the same sports team? These will be important bonds that can connect even seemingly very different people.
- The secret sauce of any effective networker? Vulnerability. This is especially valid in relation to intergenerational networking. There will naturally be cultural references that we miss and experiences that we have not been a party to – and there is little point in pretending otherwise. Authenticity is key, and every authentic individual is occasionally vulnerable. Counterintuitively perhaps, this is a powerful quality in a leader, and something that will earn deep respect from the people of different generations, and it is well worth striving for.
Communication, networking, and developing productive professional relationships with the representatives of various generations is indeed the challenge of today’s workplace. Knowing the speed with which the world around us is developing, it will remain a challenge tomorrow, too. Thus this conversation is one of our age, which will become increasingly salient as the influx of different generations in the workplace increases.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alisa Grafton is an expert on networking for lawyers, and a sought-after speaker and educator on intergenerational networking and professional relationships. She has collaborated with The Law Society and many prominent law firms and professional organizations.
Alisa is the author of the Business Book Awards 2023-nominated Great Networking: the Art and Practice of Building Authentic Professional Relationships.
She is a practicing English Scrivener Notary based in London, UK. During her career spanning over 22 years, she held partnerships at the most prominent firms in their field, and is currently engaged as a consultant, assisting corporate and private clients.
Find out more at: www.alisagrafton.com