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How to bridge the generation gap at work

As if there weren’t already enough challenges in the workplace, we now seem to be struggling with a generational disconnect. Apparently, some millennials are a bit frustrated by their inability to engage their Gen X and Baby Boomer colleagues in meaningful, heartfelt dialogue.

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In her article, I’m a Millennial and I Can’t Get My Older Colleagues to be Vulnerable. Help!  Quartz at Work reporter Leah Fessler described her uneasiness after she joined a new team at work comprised primarily of older folks. Fessler, “extroverted … and from a loud Italian family,” was accustomed to being around younger people her age that readily shared details about their personal lives. Her new co-workers, though friendly, preferred to keep their private lives private, leaving Fessler feeling “lonely and intimidated.”

“Sharing … drives vulnerability, which, as a millennial, I’ve been primed to believe is a pre-eminent professional strength,” Fessler wrote.

She soon realized that many kept to themselves because they believed that opening up meant exposing vulnerabilities. Social media – particularly Facebook – encourages disclosure of even the most trivial stuff. Older people more set in their ways are typically more hesitant to embrace that mentality. In fact, one co-worker told Fessler that personal information you reveal “could be used against you.”

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In stark contrast is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, a huge proponent of “authenticity and vulnerability” in the workplace. In her article How Sheryl Sandberg’s Sharing Manifesto Drives Facebook, Sandberg advocates for total transparency at work, including sharing difficult and highly personal experiences. She believes that honest communication strengthens relationships, creates higher levels of trust and promotes emotional health.

Eight years ago, University of Houston research professor and author Dr. Brene Brown gave a TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, that stands up just as well today. She said meaningful human connection is impossible without a willingness to be vulnerable. People with low self-esteem often feel unworthy of social connection and suppressing their vulnerability merely intensifies their shame. Breaking the cycle means finding the courage to take risks and reveal your human side.

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“In order for connection to happen,” says Brown, “we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”

It may sound like a tall order for those unaccustomed to discussing their true feelings. Old habits die hard. But Brown makes an excellent point when she says that being vulnerable means allowing the world to see your blemishes. Everyone knows you can’t be perfect; pretending otherwise is illogical. Authenticity also enables you to be more joyful, compassionate and loving. That applies to people in every generation.

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