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Communication is Not 'One Size Fits All'
One person leads by hierarchy, another by consensus. One person views things practically, another with skepticism. Some respect authority, others are unimpressed by it. One person needs praise, while another just wants to be an inclusive member.

These differences can build tension, conflict, judgment or confusion. But according to Janet Sellars of NASA Langley's Equal Opportunity Office (EOO), we can recognize those differences and use them as a problem-solving force.

Differences in outlooks and values often depend on the generation you were born into. At NASA's Langley Research Center, there are four generations represented in the workforce: Veterans, Boomers, Generation X and Millennials.

Janet Sellars of Langley's Equal Opportunity Office.

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Janet Sellars of NASA Langley's Equal Opportunity Office hosted a lunch talk about generational differences in communication. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

The majority of NASA Langley employees are from the Boomer generation (1943-1960). This means that 39 percent of the workforce tends to have an optimistic outlook, a driven work ethic and a love/hate relationship with authority. They tend to lead by consensus and appreciate personal gratification. They do not like political incorrectness.

Generation X, or "Gen Xers" (1961-1980) make up 32 percent of NASA Langley's workforce. Their outlook is more skeptical and their work ethic focuses on balance. They are typically unimpressed by authority, and prefer competent leaders. They are reluctant to commit and prefer unique ideas; they are bothered by cliché ones.

Millennials (1981-2000), also known as Generation Y, make up 21 percent of NASA Langley's employees. They tend to have hopeful outlooks and determined work ethics. They handle authority with politeness and prefer leadership by cooperation. They want to feel like a part of something inclusive and are turned off by promiscuity.

Only 5 percent of NASA Langley's workforce is considered Veterans (1901-1942). With practical outlooks and dedicated work ethics, they tend to view authority with respect. They prefer leadership by hierarchy and value personal sacrifice in relationships. They do not like vulgarity.

As Sellars explained, communicating in the workplace is not "one size fits all." Our differences create "generational clash points," which can result in disconnect. Responses to those disconnects tend to happen on three levels: by acknowledging it and letting it go, by changing behavior, and by using a generational template to talk it over.

"The thing I like about conflicts — is that they lead to great problem-solving," Sellars said. "It forces your hand. You have to get through the conflict to arrive at a solution on the other side."

Sellars offered up six strategies to re-connect: 1. Initiate conversations about generations. 2. Ask people about their needs and preferences. 3. Offer options. 4. Personalize your style. 5. Build on strengths. 6. Pursue different perspectives.

She also offered some potential motivational messages. A Veteran might like to hear, "Your experience is respected here." A Boomer may want to hear, “We need you.” Generation Xers might like to be told, "Do it your way." And Millennials might appreciate, "You could be a hero here."

Generational differences do not have to be a negative thing. Minus any assumptions and judgment, dialogues can open up. And by acknowledging and respecting our differences, we can add value.

This goes for other core factors that can affect our communication, such as ethnicity and religion. Sellars also acknowledged that life experiences, such as income, health, education and family roles, cause us to have different values.

But they also give us a reason to celebrate diversity, the similarities and differences in the individual and organizational characteristics that shape the center. Sellars hopes to lead diversity by creating more inclusive work environments — something that may come naturally to at least 21 percent of the employees.

Within a decade, NASA Langley will start to welcome Generation Z, or Generation 9/11 due to their post 9/11 childhoods, into the workforce. Sellars prefers to view five generations of thinking in one place as a resource.

"A combination of fresh thinking and experience is the most powerful ammunition [NASA] Langley can have in its arsenal," Sellars said.

By: Denise Lineberry

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman