Generational Changes and Communication in the Construction Industry

During one of the leadership development sessions I was facilitating last year for a client, I observed one of the participants sitting back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest and appearing to be, at a minimum, disinterested in the session. It was as if to silently and indirectly communicate, “Look lady, there is nothing here for me. I was forced to be here so let’s get this thing over with so I can get on with something much more important to me than this class.” He appeared very confident, if not almost cocky, and was disengaged from the conversation. He was a recent graduate of one of our great Texas universities, had a new position as an assistant project manager for a well-known company in the Houston construction industry and now he was required to attend this leadership development program. I looked at him and asked, “John, how much do you think you know?” He smiled and replied, “I think I know a lot!”

Now as a Baby Boomer, I found this quite amusing. He wasn’t the first Millennial sitting in one of my sessions acting like he was being tortured to have to attend one of these classes. I said, “John, is it possible that you don’t know as much as you think you know, and is it possible that you don’t know that you don’t know as much as you think you know?” I can say that I certainly stirred up the room because by now several people were chuckling, and I could tell his head was spinning from trying to process what I had just said! He looked at me as if I had three heads and started turning red in the face. I then said to him, “Now John, before you get all worked up, would you be open to consider this idea. In the big picture of life, and all there is to know about everything that exists, not one of us in this room individually knows very much. In fact, if you take all of us in this room collectively, we still know next to nothing. We may know just a tiny little speck at most, of all the knowledge in the universe. And think about this John, if we approach life as if we already know everything or at the least ‘a lot,’ then are we open to learning something new? And although you recently graduated from college and that is commendable, do you really think you know everything about the construction industry or even just your job? Here’s what I know John: you know what you know, and you know what you don’t know, but you don’t know what you don’t know and that is what you might learn here, something you don’t even know you don’t know!” Now stop and picture John’s head doing a 360!

The good news is that after John recovered from that lively discourse, he began to listen and actively participate. After all, I put all the attention on him and being of his generation, he kind of liked that. In the end however, he did become one of the most successful participants of his company’s leadership program.

By recognizing that for John to embrace the learning process, he needed to be allowed to communicate his ideas, opinions and knowledge freely and actively. That’s what his generation, (the Millennials) want, to be actively involved in the conversation, be able to share freely, to have their input welcomed and valued and to be able to shoot straight even if it stings a bit. Not because they are mean, but because they are wired to be honest to a T.

We need to recognize that there are several generations working and the differences each generation brings is the strength that is helping to create one of most the dynamic, rapidly changing, growing, and successful business environments in history. Each generation also brings something valuable to the table. Never in history has there been so many generations actively working side by side to change the corporate culture dramatically, especially in the last ten years. It has swung from the authoritarian, rule-oriented, command and control style of management with a preference for the in-person/face to face style of communication of the Traditionalists (born between 1927 to 1945), to the collaborative style of leadership with a technology-focused style of communication that is required and encouraged by the Millennials or Gen Y (born 1981 or later), the largest group in the working population. They are competitive, confident, tech-savvy and polite in their communications and would prefer to text and email over most face to face or phone interactions. They desire positive, respectful, and motivational communication. Providing these employees with regular guidance is needed, frequent positive feedback a must, and keeping them “in the loop,” is the expectation for these team players.

In-between the bookends of Traditionalists and Millennials are the hard-working Baby Boomers, (born between 1946 – 1964). These workaholics are optimistic, seek personal gratification and tend to be more authoritative in their management/leadership style, tend to be diplomatic and direct in their communications and prefer face to face interactions. They are currently the second largest group in the workforce but are diminishing with approximately 10,000 employees retiring each day.

Generation X (born between 1961 – 1980) are self-reliant, results-oriented and fun. They tend to be blunt and direct in their communications but have the potential to bridge the gap between the youngest and oldest workers. They often gravitate to being entrepreneurs and thrive on diversity and challenge in their leadership approach, but they can also tend to be a bit hands off in managing others. This can be great if you don’t want anyone breathing down your neck, but it can also be ineffective in having a clear understanding of what progress is being made or what problems rearing their heads if this boss is not taking temperature by asking questions.

If co-mingling these four generations is not challenging enough, the complexion of the business world will be further challenged by the inclusion of a fifth generation to its’ workforce, the I Gen or Gen Z (born 2001 and after) who are now just leaving high school and with a communication and leadership style that has yet to be determined.
I was invited to attend the same client’s company-wide retreat several months after their leadership development program to give a short refresher on personality and communication styles. Near the end of my session I asked the group, “So, now how much do we know?” John shouted out, “Miss Linda, we know nothing!” The group cheered at this millennial’s confident self-awareness. It was a good day.

One thing I have learned on this forty-year journey of facilitating leadership development in the construction industry is when the different generations focus on and recognize each other’s strengths, manage the weaknesses, strive for improvement by working together effectively, everything is possible. Is it easy? No. Will it require education? Yes. If you want success blending the different generations together in your organization, help your employees understand and embrace the differences each generation brings. At the end of the day, we are truly better together – all of us!

Linda Carter

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