How Business Communication Rules Have Changed (And Stayed the Same)

Business leaders everywhere recognize and are searching for ways to fully comprehend and respond to massive changes in the modern office environment. Some of the most pressing changes revolve around communication needs in the increasingly global business landscape, and many of those changes are due to the rapid and drastic generational shift within today's workplace.

Each generation has its own approach to communication, and each one tends to approach their careers with a certain set of communication skills and comfort levels that employers find it increasingly more important to acknowledge and facilitate.

Understanding the Basics of Each Generation's Communication Style

Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground, a book written by Jennifer J. Deal, explored the attitudes, outlooks and values of each generation in the workforce. She found some areas where each generation shared common ground at that time. Here are a few of the ways the generations are similar:

  • Traditional Value Structure. Values that matter most for each generation focus on family, honesty, integrity and trustworthiness.
  • Desire for Respect and Positive Recognition. Everyone wants to be heard and valued for their contributions and achievements.
  • Trustworthy Leaders Who Listen and Act. If workers don’t believe that leaders will listen and act on their behalf, each generation said it creates a lack of trust and ultimately a decline in productivity.
  • No One Likes Change. In spite of the stereotype that says millennials love and thrive on change, Deal's research revealed the opposite, that no generation is more or less comfortable than another when it comes to changes.
  • Every Generation Loves Feedback. Everyone wants to know how they are doing at work. Employees of all generations understand that, to perform well and achieve raises and promotions, they must learn from feedback.

Today, there are more differences among the generations, as each one has changed in the wake of the 2009 recession and other cultural shifts. Further, it is natural that, as time goes on and people age — even within the context of their own generation — their values shift. Now that Generation Z has entered the workforce, it is also important to look at their values and goals to further explore their perspective on communication and how it fits within the overall generational context of the modern workplace.

Here are some basic characteristics and communication values for each of today's prominent generations in the workplace:

  • Baby Boomers. Baby boomers have always been workaholics, demonstrated by their trend toward deferring retirement. Whether in response to losses during the late 2000s economic downturn or as a matter of work ethic, baby boomers are staying in the workforce longer. They appreciate high-quality products and services, are not afraid to question authority or the status quo, and always want to be friendly and accessible leaders. They believe in the value of one-on-one communications but are willing and eager to adapt to modern communications trends with the right training and time to adapt.
  • Generation X. A key feature of this generation is its members' ability to quietly and adeptly adapt to different conditions, including communications and communications technologies. While Gen Xers are comfortable in meetings and one-on-one face-to-face sessions, they also learn quickly and easily how to take on each new technological iteration, from the laptop to the latest smartphone or tablet. As pragmatists by nature, members of Generation X seek structure and direction — always keeping an eye toward adaptability and willingness to make healthy changes — while maintaining a skeptical eye toward the status quo. Autonomy is important to this generation, so while they are willing to hear and offer feedback, it is not a core need for them.
  • Millennials. Also known as Generation Y, millennials have always been on the lookout for what is next on the horizon. They were raised with the spirit of their largely baby boomer parents' focus on work. Core traits of millennials include being goal-oriented, entrepreneurial and expert multitaskers. They thrive on electronic communications, so they are generally more likely to prefer a text, email or social media post over a face-to-face meeting or even a telephone call. Millennials work well with a greater range of freedom, especially with their comfort with electronic devices, but they also enjoy a collaborative approach to work.
  • Generation Z. Largely the children of members of Generation X, Gen Zers have grown up in the era of the Great Recession with technology as the default. Most members of Generation Z began using some sort of technology at a very young age, so it is an extremely comfortable medium for them. However, their relationship with their smartphones has not hindered their ability to connect and thrive among colleagues. They tend to be innovative and creative, with a strong to desire to make an impact on society. Again, watching the fallout from the housing bubble burst of the late 2000s — perhaps with some personal impact for their parents — Generation Z tends to feel a greater desire for mutual loyalty with employers, wanting to advance and grow professionally within an organization. They consider lengthy professional engagements — regardless of pay — a source of professional development and stepping stones toward success.

Intergenerational Communication Differences Can Cause Complications

The reality of the generational shift in the workforce is undeniable for today's business leaders, but most are still learning the subtleties while working to facilitate each generation without too great a disturbance to standard operations.

One area where organizational leaders run into complications is hiring. More specifically, HR managers have learned that each generation communicates their strengths and abilities in a unique way. Since they don't want to discard someone because of a communication breakdown, they are working to listen to and hear each generation based on their own generational and personal style.

A June 2019 Forbes article titled "How Intergenerational Communication Failure Is Causing Chaos in the Interview Process" stated that interviewees in their late 30s and older expect meaningful one-on-one conversations from the beginning to the end of the interview process. Highly engaged older millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers regularly feel that their resume should have undergone a thorough review before the advanced screening process. Further, they feel that they should be able to discuss the contents and background of their work lives in more detail. It is also important to these candidates to know the general climate of the interview, such as how many people they will meet with in a given interview session, as well as how many individualized sessions they may face in a single day. Generation X members report not having these desires met generally. Generation Z seems more adaptable on these matters, allowing for a more fluid approach to the interview process.

While there are many additional communication-based aspects to hiring and employment, these interview expectations reveal a fair amount of prediction versus reality that business leaders may consider exploring for hiring and beyond.

Why Is Communication So Crucial for Company Leaders in a Time of Generational Transition?  

It is only natural that each generation explores and ultimately lands on its own communication style. However, this ever-rapidly emerging multigenerational workforce requires everyone to alter the way they interact and relate to each other to achieve goals and enjoy a common corporate culture together in harmony.  Business communication leaders carefully monitor the respective personality and communication needs of each generation to better understand values and needs for ideal workplace communication.  

By trying to understand key communication styles and basic human values — irrespective of and including their generation — employers gain a better sense of how to communicate ideas to each other, as well as how to effectively express opinions about how work performance can improve, how everyone can collaborate more efficiently and much more. Business leaders who focus on the nature of communication — especially in the midst of a generational shift — can create new pathways to understanding for their management teams and employees for all types of positive outcomes, such as improved productivity and stronger profits.

If you aspire to become a leader in the workplace, communication is an essential skill. Learn more about the online Master of Communication Management degree from USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.