Respect looks different to different individuals, of course.  But I’m particularly fascinated by how generational differences influence our concept of respectful behavior in the workplace. 

During a recent generational diversity workshop, I asked the participants to share their pet peeves on the topic.  One Boomer woman was painfully candid about hers; she said, “If you’re younger than me, I don’t perceive you as an equal.  So I expect you to call me Mrs. so-and-s0, and if you don’t, I can’t hear anything you say after that.” 

As I learned reading the class evaluation sheets later, some people admired her for so clearly and boldly explaining her thinking to us, and others were offended by what she said.  My own feeling is that while she might have found a more diplomatic way to express her feelings, if we don’t all learn to put this sort of information on the table with our teammates and colleagues, the negative impact on workplace culture and performance is very real.  Many of us do stop listening once we perceive that we’ve been “dissed”, and teammates that aren’t listening to each other aren’t performing at their best. 

So how do you get teams to have these sorts of conversations?  Here are some thoughts:

  • Set up a framework within which to discuss it.  A class on generational difference is a perfect example, but there are other ways to do it.  Hold a round robin at the beginning of a team meeting, for example, in which people are asked to share “pet peeves” that may be impacting the norms of the team or the effectiveness of communication.
  • Make it safe to discuss it.  As a leader or facilitator of a team, talk about the differences in views about respectful behavior in a way that makes it clear you are not placing value judgments on behavior, but merely exploring differences.
  • Give examples that help people see how common it is for the picture of respectful behavior to change over time.  Talking about how a member of the Traditionalist generation might set up a meeting (formally, in advance, by written request) in comparison with how a Gen Y might set up a meeting (informally, by dropping in on someone) can paint a clear picture for teammates that helps them see beyond their own hot buttons.

As a trainer and facilitator, I try to learn model these ideas.  For example, in my generation we always considered it standard to lay a ground rule before a session: turn your pagers and cell phones to vibrate and put away your laptops and PDA’s.  One thing I’ve learned recently about Gen Y is that they’re multi-taskers, and just because they’re texting away doesn’t mean that they’re not listening.  In fact, they might even be taking notes from the class on their PDA’s.  I no longer have a rule like that; now I just ask them to “stay engaged with the class”, and leave it up to them as to what engagement looks like. 

What examples do you have of respectful or disrespectful behaviors as influenced by generational perspectives?  I’d especially like to hear any that relate to conducting training sessions or facilitating meetings.


  1. Interesting blog, Ana, but it’s missing an important part of the equation: Generation Jones (between the Boomers and Generation X). Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report chose the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009. Here’s a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones:

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. And most analysts now see generations as getting shorter (usually 10-15 years now), partly because of the acceleration of culture. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978
    Generation Y: 1979-1993

  2. David Orr

    1. You might have a section of training in which generational attitudes are brainstormed in a list then analyzed like this:

    Behavior: Gen Y people want to text and use their laptops during meetings.

    Reactions: Boomers or people from “respectful cultures” may feel disrespected.

    What the behavior really means: Gen-Y people are multitaskers and can handle listening at a meeting and other tasks. No disrespect intended. (Some corporate cultures require them to do multasking. For example, Accenture has meeting rooms with network and internet connections for everyone’s laptop.)

    Behavior Changes: Stop feeling disrespected. Introduce interactive elements to meetings where participants have to respond or work as teams toward solutions.

    2. You might have an initial list of behaviors with analysis, then add behaviors to a laundry list and analyze before the training is over.

    3. Teach the following response pattern when someone is bugged by behavior:

    Ask: When you work on your laptop while I’m talking at a meeting,, I feel disrespected. What does your behavior really mean?

    Response: I’m taking notes. Or, about 80% of what happens in a meeting I don’t need to know in my job, so I listen for things I do need to know or respond to and get other things done in the meantime.

  3. TFR: thanks for that! I have seen Boomers divided in two and termed “Woodstock generation” and “younger Boomers”, but the term Generation Jones is new to me. Thanks for the link, I look forward to learning more.

  4. Linda Ferguson

    With respect to defining “respect” vs. “disrepsct”, I’d also suggest looking at the work of Marshall Rosenberg on Non-Violent Communication (NVC). In his model, the concept of respect or disrepect is explored as a need or a judgment. When we say ‘I feel disrespected’, examine whether that’s an emotion (feeling) vs. a judgment of what another is doing. We have a need for respect and the other person’s behavior may not meet our need for respect (or it may- depending on how we judge their behavior).

    I have found it valuable to learn how to separate out feelings from judgments from needs (this is the NVC model).