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The Three-A Process for Generational Inclusion

by Mary Cooney

As a Baby Boomer college professor, I became aware of a new generation of students in 2005. Suddenly — boom! — I was met with a class that would not let me teach them until they knew why they needed this course, why it mattered, and how they could use it in their future professions.

Who were these people? 

How dare they challenge my authority, I thought. They needed the course because I took it and the university said it was required. It sent me into an existential tailspin. I had never really thought about why.

That’s when I began realizing the incredible diversity of the generations.

Like any other problem our world seeks to fix, education and awareness are where we must start. We can’t do anything about a problem we don’t even know about.

You became aware of generational differences in your office or workplace at some point because you experienced it. And if you’re like me, your first reaction might have been surprise, confusion, intimidation, perhaps anger and ultimately, resistance. That was my first reaction when I experienced it in my classroom.

Awareness Exercise: Recall the first time you realized you were working with someone whose generational perspective was very different from yours. Where were you and what happened? What was your gut reaction to the difference? What was your takeaway? 

Despite my resistance, this journey became transformative for me. I had to let go of outmoded, superficial ways of teaching, and I couldn’t rely simply on my position as a professor to make them listen.

Outcome: I became more authentic. I gained student trust and they let me lead them through their own transformation as scholars. I found that giving them autonomy, flexibility, and creative use of technology for problem-solving resulted in outcomes I never could have imagined.

Here’s what I know to be true: our Millennial generation is extremely intelligent, hard-working when engaged, and is not afraid to take risks or innovate. This calls for a celebration.

So, how do we get from Resistance to Acceptance in the Generational Diversity Process?

It takes some work to understand the context of generational differences, and especially why the new generation is markedly different from previous generations. Below is a snapshot of generational differences.


Acceptance Exercise: After reviewing this chart, think about the description of your generation. In what ways do you identify with the characteristics? In what ways do you individually differ? It’s worth noting that within the generational categories, every individual differs in some way.

Now that you’ve seen a few factors that differentiate the generations, just sit a minute. Shakespeare noted that “Nothing is either good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” What if the differences between the generations are neither good nor bad — just different? Does that make them easier to accept? How might a change in your thinking about the generational differences shift your attitude and move you to acceptance?

Remember, HR Leader, you have an incentive to be generationally inclusive: Ignoring generational differences is proven to diminish employee recruitment, retention, and engagement. Perhaps equally urgent is preparing the younger generation for institutional leadership as the “silver tsunami” of baby boomer retirement approaches.

Crossing the generational divide in order to forge mutually supportive relationships takes strong, but kind leadership. Your awareness and acceptance of generational differences is essential in getting  the process started.

But How?

Face-to-Face Conservation

For reasons I cannot explain when I look into the eyes of the person to whom I am listening or speaking, I can hear — and understand — better. Sometimes a bit of empathy even surfaces. What if we are all in this together after all? What a concept!

One thing I learned when restructuring my millennial classroom was that no tech advancement could replace the need for the good, old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. The kind where we listened to what other people had to say, tried to understand why they thought the way they did and found ways to combine differing ideas into something new that solved a problem.

I would like to say that face-to-face class conversations evolved quickly and easily, but they did not. We had to overcome the great disruptors: ubiquitous smartphones and laptop computers. There is a time and a place for multi-tasking, but a discussion session is not one of them. Electronic screens interrupt eye contact — and that messes with listening. So, I established a new rule: CLASS DISCUSSIONS ELECTRONIC FREE ZONE

Tech free. Sit together. Listen. Talk. Trust the process. Take differing ideas and turn them into a whole new way of solving a problem.

Generational Inclusion happens when we level the playing field.

Action Step: Convene for an electronics-free discussion meeting from time to time. Muddle through the awkwardness of looking around the room instead of at an app. Make small talk with someone you don’t always talk to. Make eye contact, really listen, ask for input. Lead by example. Electronics are necessary tools to get things done, but human interaction determines what to do.

Facilitate Courageous Community Conversation:

What happens when we gather a multi-generational group of workers specifically to…   

            … name our perceptions of each other?

            … learn about the context in which generational differences evolved?

            … frame our differences as strengths for company progress?

I recently facilitated a Courageous Conversation for an advertising agency grappling with the threat of marginalizing older employees to support the youth-driven culture of the industry.

Getting honest with each other builds trust. When we take a risk together, and “name the beast”, fear diminishes.

Once we acknowledged that the world we grew up in shaped our identities, the case for generational difference was settled. It allowed us to see ourselves, where we fit in and where we differed from our generation’s norm. No one fits every generational norm, so recognition of our individualities allowed us to approach each other as individuals, not members of a particular generation.

The Conversation wrapped up with multi-generational small groups brainstorming how Millennial tech-savvy, innovative skills, combined with Gen X experience and Baby boomer wisdom can optimize product development and customer service. The key question here is: “Where can the sum of our differences strengthen the whole?”

Turning generational diversity into organizational wins begins with tech-free, face-to-face conversations, an intentional courageous conversation naming differences, and leveraging the differences to solve problems.

It will take some work, but the work will yield results that are worth it. We’re all in this together after all.


Mary Cooney, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Creativia, helping businesses succeed through Cross-Generational Engagement. Having earned a Ph.D. in theatre from Wayne State University, Mary uses creative and innovative techniques for improving generational diversity in the workplace. As a university professor, Mary has over 20 years of experience teaching and preparing Millennials for the workforce, giving her a unique perspective on both sides of the generation gap. After all, generational diversity requires both the exuberance of youth and the experience of age.