Generation Wars: A Battle Strategy for a More Inclusive Workplace

The New York Times recently proclaimed the end of ‘friendly’ generational relations. The outlet may have missed the last decade of articles on millennials, including Time’sThe Me Me Me Generation.More recently, a slew of articles details the myriad of ways millennials are screwed and how they’re even on track to die faster.
Those born between 1982 and 2004 are purportedly short-lived narcissists and industry killers. This caused the resulting resentment to surface in social media and the workplace. With #Okboomer proliferating on the internet, it seems as if a generation war was waged with a hashtag.
What’s most important, though, is that this divide is a huge elephant in an industry that expects large numbers of its workforce to retire within the next five years.
Government often discusses these problems in shades of replacing its existing workforce. But, it hardly talks about how these rifts and other isms impact government work today.
Workforce retention and replacement strategies generally focus on representation. Instead, governments should discuss steps toward inclusion. The experience of employees as they navigate work can speed up or stagnate productivity and innovation.
For me, I couldn’t be working at a more paradoxical intersection: technology and government. However, digital transformation is all about people and not about technology. On the one hand, the tech industry is bubbling with youthful, Millenial zeal. On the other, I work in government — an entire industry stigmatized for its lethargic movement and antiquated processes.
As a millenial who graduated high school as the last of my cohort were being born, I’m often labeled ‘too old’ to enact the rapid advances of the tech industry. Yet, I’m also a ‘youngster’ or a ‘baby’ by my government colleagues. As such, the rift, and its impacts are pretty clear to me on a daily basis. Add the complexities of race and gender, and these experiences can become even more compounded and pronounced. While age is a headlining topic, it is just one of many ways bias can undermine the ability for someone to be their most authentic selves at work.
‘Isms’ manifest in several ways. Often ‘office culture’ can disproportionately impact bureaucrats young and old, Black and Brown. There are several signs that isms are impeding productivity in your government organization. But, you can help fix these problems in the following ways:

First, take note if you are finding yourself in repeated meetings about the same topic.

The BBC just reported that while meetings can be a kind of therapy, they also can also become a form of power struggle. However, if it takes you more meetings to gain the approval to move forward, it may be a sign that a power struggle may be at hand.
Why this is important: If you need 10 meetings to make a decision, you aren’t doing the work.
How to fix:
1. If you’re the person calling meetings — stop and reflect. Examine if you’re questioning the outcomes or if you are merely evaluating the credibility of the people in the meeting.
2. If you’re the person being subject to meetings about your work, reconsider offering multiple explanations. Often women and people of color produce reports, presentations, and ‘overexplain’ their position. This often occurs in order to garner authority. Instead, find allies that will bolster your positions in meetings.

Second, pay attention to the distribution of acknowledgment.

Governments often give medals for a long tenure, but hardly anything for completed tasks or projects. Moreover, when that acknowledgment is offered, it may be given without regularity or logic. I recently attended a meeting where a young, white man was given applause at a meeting for cleaning up a single contact list. Conversely, at the same meeting, another colleague had just completed a six-month project. She received a brief thank you during the meeting. Both the project scope and the acknowledgment received were wildly different. If we want more inclusive workplaces, we need to recognize when people do well, regularly.
Why this is important: Often, success, particularly in technology, requires more visibility. This is particularly true for women.
How to fix:
1. If you notice a lack of acknowledgment, initiate a way to recognize accomplished colleagues.
2. Manager or leader? Come up with a ritual to acknowledge staff regularly or at specific intervals.
3. If you’re the one not being acknowledged, look for other ways to highlight your work. This could include industry conferences or hosting a workshop in your organization.

Third, the most toxic behavior in a working environment is blame. Blame is the enemy of productivity.

Often, before and after meetings are places where regularly-scheduled ‘bus-throwing’ occurs. A high-level white woman can explain away a late project delivery through ‘overwork.’ But, a young woman of color can look incompetent based on a scheduling error, even when she’s asked to do so in addition to her regular job duties.
Why is this important: Blame detracts from identifying the critical factors for project failure. Also, it’s demoralizing, causes disengagement, and can totally derail projects.
How to fix:
1. Stop throwing people under the bus. Speaking ill of anyone is bad behavior, but especially if you are the more privileged person in the situation. Hold people accountable by having direct, candid, constructive discussions with your colleagues.

2. If you are the target of blame, find champions who can credit you for your accomplishments and identify constructive ways to move forward.

Ultimately, public servants experience bias in the workplace like people in other industries. However, the outcomes of our government work often have broader social impacts. Thus, our attention to workplace behavior, whether it’s about generational differences or other social woes, require our best thinking and our best behavior.

Have any other experiences or tips? Let us know in the comments.

Mai-Ling Garcia is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She strives to make the government simple and easy to use. She developed and executes digital strategy and service delivery for the City of Oakland as the City’s Digital Engagement Officer. She works to bridge the gap between rapidly evolving technologies and their use to benefit the Oakland community. She founded the City’s first Digital Services team focused on improving the public experience of government for Oaklanders, including Oaklandca.gov. You can read her posts here.

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