Sales Coaching Blog

How to bridge generation gaps btwn sales managers & sales reps

Posted by Jaime Davis-Thomas

July 30, 2010

The Big Disconnect – Managing the Generation Gap

Guest Author: JP Pawliw-Fry, Institute for Health & Human Performance Dr. JP Pawlin-Fry, Institute for Health and Human Potential

“Shhuuut uuup!” said the Gen Y to her astonished sales manager.  “Excuse me?” replied the shocked sales manager, a Boomer. This is a typical conversation taking place in an sales organization at this moment.  It crystallizes the challenge of managing across generations in workplaces today – with a young Generation Y and her surprised Boomer sales manager on a potential generational collision course.

While there is little argument that different formative experiences influence each generation, popular media and many generation gurus may have taken these differences too far in describing them as a clash of values.   In a study conducted by The Center for Public Opinion Research, fundamental beliefs and values were compared across four generations and it found minimal differences. This is not to discount the frustration felt by each generation today. There is tension between the different generations, but then there has always been.  Perhaps the frustration is more about style differences than core value differences. 

If style and approach are the foundation of the generational rift then it may be more of a human behavior issue then a generational difference that needs to be addressed.  Under the pressure of time and the need to drive sales results, we unintentionally let emotions become the driver of our behavior, regardless of generational occupancy. When there are perceived differences between generations, we often become overly judgmental and have trouble moving beyond the negatively perceived impact each groups actions has on one another, to the positive intention each started with.   As a result, when a hiccup occurs in a relationship it is much easier to jump to conclusions and make assumptions of the other generation’s faults that create emotional disconnect.

bridge the gapWhen one generation approaches another there are three components to this emotional disconnect.  First, your understanding of the situation.  Second, their understanding of the situation and third, is the understanding gap in between the two.   What do we do when there is a gap? We build a bridge.   Most understand the value of connecting – bridging to another person’s understanding, but with emotions driving our behavior it is more difficult to do this skillfully.  The skillful component starts with whose side of the bridge to start on when you attempt to bridge the gap.  Most do this by starting from their own side, explaining their perspective first in their attempt at connecting to other generations. With very good intention, and without knowing any better, they build the bridge from their own side and assemble it toward the other person. Unfortunately, this has limited success. 

Instead, the more effective way to connect to other generations is to start from the other side of the bridge, their side, and build it backwards, step by step, toward your side. Entering into the conversation or situation, thinking about what is going on for the other person, can make all the difference in the world. Starting with questions such as:  

What is their reality?

Their expectations?

What might they be really asking for in their request?

What emotion might be driving their behavior?

What might be their true intention in this situation?

As opposed to jumping to a judgment based on a stereotype and a style difference, moving to their side of the bridge and thinking about their intention can transform the interaction. 

There are clear reasons why this strategy is essential to generations working together and appreciating each other.  Over time, this approach builds a more robust ‘bridge’ or connection that allows the relationship to withstand most events that occur under stress.  Getting on their side of the bridge can help each generation see their true intention which is, style and expectation aside, the same as their own; to do great work, learn, grow and contribute. Those organizations that adopt this strategy are able to create the kind of relationships that not only retains the next generation employees more effectively, but also increases engagement of all generations[i]. The specific payoff can be measured by discretionary effort. Employees who score in the top quartile of engagement give 25% more discretionary effort (extra effort) than the average[ii]. Think about what 25% more effort from your employees would look like in your organization – regardless of generational occupancy.

(Going back to the conversation that started on page one…) “Shuuuut uppp?” the Boomer asks, emphasizing the Gen Y’s interesting pronunciation.  “Oh, you know, like wow, I never knew that! That’s amazing! I really didn’t mean anything by it” she says with an enthusiastic smile. With the coming demographic shift, organizations with people who can separate impact for intention are trained to bridge the gap, and who remain mindful of the values traps assumptions will be the organizations to win the coming war for talent, at all generational levels.

For a more extensive look at this topic "Managing The Generations - The Big Disconnect" download Dr. Pawliw-Fry's white paper.


[i]  Engaged Employees Inspire Company Innovation The Gallup Management Journal, 2006

[ii] Catapillar Case Study, DDI International Dec. 2003

Topics: EcSELL Institute Partner, Emotional Intelligence, sales coaching, sales management skills, sales management resources

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