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Bridging The Generational Gap: Using Relational Intelligence To Unite Your Workforce

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The five essential skills will help you attract, retain and engage talent spanning across the different generations—because we all want, more or less, the same things.

As a Gen-Xer who has had the opportunity to coach and consult to Baby Boomers, fellow Gen-Xers, Millennials and Gen-Zers, I’ve started to wonder if we make too much about the differences in attitudes, beliefs and preferences between the generations.

Today, there seems to be a litany of articles focusing on the differences between generations. But are we really that different than our older or younger counterparts? In some important ways, we’re not. We all want the same things when it comes to core attributes of positive and meaningful work lives: happiness, fulfillment, appreciation, security and purpose.

Before we dive into relational intelligence and how to use it to unite your workforce, let’s establish the boundaries around which most people define their generations. Baby Boomers usually refer to the post-World War II generation, born between 1946 and 1964. Generation-X represents people born between 1965 and 1981. Generation-Y, most often referred to as Millennials, span the birth years of 1982-1997. And anyone born between 1998 and 2012 is considered a member of Generation-Z.

Why Relational Intelligence Spans Different Generations

Relational Intelligence is the ability to successfully connect with people and build strong, long-lasting relationships. This is critical in business, where leaders need to create cultures of excellence that are relationship-oriented and foster great employee engagement. Relational intelligence impacts people of all generations as we all want to feel that we are valued by our employers, have meaningful contributions to make to our organizations, and have opportunities to grow, develop, and advance in our careers.

Research by our firm, Bandelli & Associates, has found that there are five essential relational intelligence skills that impact how people of all generations build successful working relationships with their colleagues and coworkers.

1. Establishing rapport is the ability to create an initial positive connection with others. In business, this plays out in recruitment, hiring and onboarding talent. It also affects the early stages of team formation and alignment. People of all generations must take time to build rapport with their colleagues. This involves making a good first impression, finding common ground with others, and using energy and enthusiasm to connect with others.

2. Understanding others is the ability to be intentional about putting in the time and effort needed to get to know people on a deep level. This involves the use of one’s emotional intelligence, having strong active listening skills, demonstrating curiosity and inquisitiveness, and being empathetic to others. Great relationships form organically over time. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re in. Taking time to understand who your employees is critical to running a successful business.

3. Embracing individual differences is the ability to acknowledge and accept the differences of people. It should be the focus to create inclusive work environments where everyone, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, religious or spiritual beliefs, personality, or cross-cultural factors, are valued and appreciated. Embracing individual differences is about actively pursuing diversity of thought as well as focusing on authenticity. Embracing individual differences and factors such as diversity, equity and inclusion are issues that are particularly important to younger generations.

4. Developing trust is the ability to be vulnerable and take a risk to be exposed to the actions and behaviors of others. When trust is developed between people, a feeling of psychological safety starts to take place. To develop and maintain trust, people must continually nurture their relationships. Regardless of your generation, underlying aspects of trust—competence, commitment, consistency, character and courage—are needed if you want to develop partnerships with others that lead to feelings of meaning and purpose in our work.

5. Cultivating influence is the ability to have a positive and meaningful impact on the lives of others. Influence is not about manipulation, control, or top-down authority. It’s at the heart of servant leadership where employers put people and culture first. This is particularly important to Millennials and Gen-Z as research has shown they increasingly want to work for employers who invest in their professional development.

Relational Intelligence and Today’s Expectations in the Workplace

Data shows that by 2025, Millennials and Gen-Z workers will make up 50-55% of the workforce. One major way in which these generations’ preferences differ from those of other generations is with a very values-driven approach to their careers and job prospects. A study conducted by Pew Research found that over 70% of Gen Z job candidates want to ensure that an employer’s brand is aligned with their own values before taking a job. This is why employers must be intentional and authentic in how they build relationships with their employees. Understanding others and embracing individual differences becomes critical when creating cultures that are values-driven. This can be challenging for Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, who have spent much of their careers in top-down hierarchical organizational structures. Today, that is becoming less common. Employers who build cultures that are more diplomatic, relationship-oriented and inclusive get the best out of their talent.

Relational Intelligence and Ties to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

Generation-Z represents the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. This no doubt contributes to the expectation among members of Gen-Z that their workplaces reflect not only their values, but also diversity amongst their colleagues and coworkers. According to a recent study conducted by Gallup, 67% of Gen Z workers reported having witnessed discrimination or bias based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity in a workplace setting. Additionally, 44% reported having personally experienced such discrimination. This is where the relational intelligence skill of embracing individual differences becomes so important. Over the last decade, Baby Boomer and Gen-X leaders have become more focused on making DEI a priority in their organizations. The social justice events of 2020 made it even more relevant and important if you want to engage employees of all generations.

Relational Intelligence and Communication, Authenticity and Transparency

Millennials and Gen-Z workers have higher expectations for intentional and proactive communication compared to their Baby Boomer and Gen-X coworkers. They want stronger personal connections with their leaders and transparency in the workplace. While Gen-Zers may have the reputation of being glued to their phone screens, our research has found that they highly value relationships and in-person communication in the workplace. Although this has been challenging, given the pandemic, a recent study conducted by PwC found that 90% of Gen Z workers desire and value human connection when it comes to their at-work communication. Today, employers need to take this seriously and make sure leaders are building authentic partnerships with their people. The Great Resignation has been fueled by employees feeling a disconnect from their managers and bosses. Relationally intelligent leaders understand the need for connection and practice the five essential skills regularly to build those important connections with their workforce. 

Relational Intelligence and the Link to Purpose, Impact and Influence

Purpose and calling have become more important for younger generations over the last decade. Millennials and Gen-Z employees want meaning in the work that they do. They want to feel that their efforts impact the greater good in their organizations. This is different from Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who are more accustomed to having 9-5 jobs rather than meaningful careers where their contributions matter. Cultivating influence becomes critically important here. Employers who are intentional about developing their talent create opportunities for people to learn new skills, develop stronger performance capabilities, and advance in their careers. Relationally intelligent leaders make it a priority to invest in the growth of their people.

If you want to unite your workforce and have people, regardless of their generation, feel that their contributions matter, you must learn and practice relational intelligence. The five essential skills will help you attract, retain and engage talent spanning across the different generations. It will also make your employees enjoy more of what they do and find greater fulfillment in their work and careers.


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