Workplace Collaboration Among Generations
First things first: Millennials and collaboration aren’t like Prometheus gifting fire to the human race. Millennials didn’t invent collaboration and bring it to the working world as their unique contribution to workplace functionality. Every generation wants to collaborate and sees the immense value in it, but there are two key things to keep in mind.
- First, each generation has a different perception of what collaborative work looks like.
- Second, that perception is influenced by how that generation grew up, how they were taught to work together in school, and what was drilled into them during their first few years in the working world.
Boomers: Come together, right now
The Baby Boomer experience and resulting perception on collaboration is defined by a couple of significant conditions from their past. The first? The many human rights movements of the ’60s. Through these movements, the earlier Boomers saw the great power their generation could effect as a group. They learned the power of the collective and brought that with them into the workplace. They believe that if everyone collectively moves toward a shared mission, they’ll accomplish great things.
On the other hand, later Boomers grew up in a time when the Baby Boom effectively overwhelmed the country’s infrastructure. They saw scarcity in the classrooms (desks, books, teachers), scarcity of jobs, and scarcity of opportunity. Their takeaway from this condition of fighting for resources is that to succeed, you need to have a competitive edge. Collaboration is well and good for these late Boomers, but in the back of their minds, whether working alone or in groups, they know they need to stand out from the crowd.
The resulting Boomer perception of collaboration is that teamwork coupled with independent work is best, but individual recognition is most motivating. Collaboration should be structured.
Gen Xers: Stop, collaborate, and listen
When Xers were growing up, the world looked very different than it did for Boomers. It was during their formative years that the divorce rate tripled and more women entered the workforce. Consequently, the term “latchkey kid” came to describe children who let themselves into their homes after school, zapped a Hot Pocket for dinner, devoured the latest music videos on MTV, and took care of themselves while their parents wrapped up the workday. This generation learned, from early on, how to take care of themselves. TV was their favorite babysitter, and even their video games — Pac-Man, Tetris, Frogger — reinforced the idea that it was just fine to do things solo.
To be clear, this does not mean that Gen Xers are a bunch of recluses who don’t like interacting with other human beings. They can collaborate when needed, but they’re a generation that really subscribes to the idea that if you want something done right, you’d better do it yourself. And when they do collaborate, they want to do it in a hyper-efficient way. The Gen X perception of collaboration is individual work first, teamwork only if necessary and truly beneficial.
Millennials: We belong together
Millennials, who grew up during the self-esteem movement, were bombarded with messages like “two heads are better than one,” “there is no ‘I’ in team,” and “you’re better together than you are alone.” Group projects were the norm and a frequent feature of their education. At home their parents encouraged a more democratic and collaborative family structure. Parents frequently solicited opinions and advice from their kids on all sorts of decisions, from small matters (like “What movie should we see this weekend?”) to big ones (“What car should we buy?”). On top of that, technology created yet another way for Millennials to collaborate, whether that meant working together on homework over AIM or — especially for the next generation — FaceTiming to practice a group presentation. With the ultimate collaboration tool in their pockets, their phones, Millennials expect to be able to connect and collaborate whenever and wherever.
Millennials’ perception of collaboration is team first, solo work later. To them, group wins feel just as good as, if not better than, individual wins. Collaboration should be informal.