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How to Give Four Generations Feedback

I had one of those defining moments in life the other day.

I went to the doctor for a minor ailment, and for the first time I noticed that the person wearing the stethoscope was younger than me!

My prevailing view of the world says that authority figures – doctors, judges, teachers, etc. – should always be older than me. Or at least they should look older. So, naturally the situation triggered all kinds of thought bubbles in my head. She’s too young to be a doctor. She can’t possibly have enough experience to make the right diagnosis. She can’t be as good as doctors who are my age… and on and on.

Of course, she made the right diagnosis, and shortly thereafter the thought bubbles in my head began to subside. Then it occurred to me how often age-related thought bubbles crop up in the business world.

We currently have four generations of workers in the US based business world, each one holding different ideas, attitudes, and thought bubbles about the workplace and about each other. This can lead to ongoing communication problems, especially with more gen-Xers and millennials starting to move into positions of responsibility.

Nowhere is clear communication more important than in the area of feedback. Here are a few suggestions on how to give effective feedback to each generation (keeping in mind that I am making some broad generalizations here for the sake of simplicity!).

Traditionalists (1922 to 1945)
Traditionalists look for public recognition, responsibility, and acknowledgement of accomplishments – both individually and for their team. They believe that “no news is good news” and prefer not to be bothered with what they consider mundane details or “little things” that might help.

Their communication style is straightforward and tactful, and they can be receptive to feedback if provided to them in the same manner. However, traditionalists tend to defer to their supervisors, so you may need to encourage them to participate in performance reviews (as opposed to just listening) by actively soliciting their view.

In the absence of feedback, traditionalists will watch closely for other signs of their contributions. These include getting invited to meetings (positive) or being questioned in a meeting (negative).

Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964)
Baby Boomers also desire public recognition for a job well done, and like to receive it from their manager and peers. They have a high need for control, and providing effective feedback helps them feel more in control of what to work on and how to work on it. They also require a bit more feedback than traditionalists, and want the documentation to back it up.

Boomers tend to dislike conflict while valuing personal growth. Therefore any constructive feedback should be approached as a growth opportunity. Boomers also like group discussions, so you can use teams to solicit team feedback. Without regular feedback, boomers will ask, look for, and interpret behavioral signs (usually negatively), especially if they’re not getting any individualized development input.

Generation X (1965 to 1980)
Gen-Xers are motivated more by how their actions contribute to the organization’s success. Therefore, feedback should include how their individual progress impacts the company and its achievements. Gen-Xers also desire ongoing recognition from their boss because of their experience and mindset about competing in the workforce.

This is the first generation that asks for feedback, although they tend to ask cautiously so as not to sound too pushy. They also enjoy constant learning, so feedback can be presented in ways that offer opportunities to grow and develop. Devoid of feedback, gen-Xers will start looking for other opportunities, either inside or outside the organization. More than any other, this generation will fill the void with negatives and quickly move to protect their personal brand.

Millennials (1981 to 2000)
Also known as “Generation Y,” millennials live in a world of social networking, where feedback is a part of everyday activity. More than any other generation, millennials crave positive reinforcement and seek to validate their value to an organization. To address these needs, provide daily acknowledgement of their contributions or redirect them immediately if they need to do something different. Don’t withhold feedback until the next scheduled meeting.

Millennials are just as likely to give feedback as they are to receive it. However, most are not skilled at giving it, and will likely require coaching or training to give it effectively. In the absence of feedback, millennials typically assume everything is okay because in their world, you get told quickly if you need to course-correct.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. If you want your organization to win, learn how to give it in the manner that each generation prefers to receive it. It’s not about you, it’s about them!

Call to action:  To learn more about communicating with each generation, visit: and check out our workbook “Four Generations at Work.”

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