How to get on with your co-workers

There has never been a greater disparity in generations throughout our workforces, and with migration at an all-time high and the rise of cross boundary teams, there’s an even greater likelihood that workplaces are made up of different cultures as well as different ages. These trends, coupled with organisations’ strategic ambitions to bring greater diversity to their teams, means you could be working with a greater range of individuals, from age to ethnicity to neuro-abilities, than ever before. 

With so many different generations and cultures working together, there’s bound to be plenty of differing opinions as well. To ensure that your team works harmoniously and effectively, it’s worthwhile remembering a bit of courtesy can go a long way as can learning to appreciate everyone’s unique preferences, habits and behaviours. 

When we fundamentally struggle to relate to someone due to generational and/or cultural differences, we often resort to harmful stereotypes and blame solvable problems on each other instead of working to understand, and value, the differences between us. 

To best understand how we can move past this and realise the benefits that a diverse team can offer, we have a few guidelines to consider

Ditch harmful stereotypes

When negative characteristics are assigned to a group, we imply that their values and beliefs are flawed. There is real value in everyone taking time to educate themselves on the realities that different generations and cultures have faced throughout their careers. What we value as individuals is more often shaped by the experiences, events and upbringings we go through at the early stages of our lives and careers.
Consider, someone who started their first office job during the pandemic. It’s safe to assume they would have started working remotely, may have struggled to find common connections with their colleagues and therefore became very task-oriented in getting their jobs done. When a person from the baby boomer generation started their first office role, the experience would have been very different. Strict start and finish times at the desk, office attire and etiquette, strong hierarchy-informed reporting structures and even ashtrays on the desk. We can hardly not forgive them for having different opinions and views on work when their starting points of reference have been so wildly different. Same concept applies to different cultures; some cultures are very focused on knowing all the different possible scenarios of a project going wrong and need to understand these before executing, whereas others are more intent on progress over perfection and will fix mistakes on the fly.
Gaining an understanding of these nuances is essential to getting on with each other, and is even more important for managers and those who aim to be managers in the future. Sometimes, the simple acknowledgment of differences at the very beginning goes a long way to finding solutions. Managers of these diverse teams may signpost at the beginning of any project or team formation that each member has great value to bring to table, and that any differences should be seen as challenges to overcome, not weapons to be used against each other

Communicate, and share your preferences

Good communication is fundamental to any team working well together, but there can be many barriers to good communication – including accents, language and styles of communication (direct and indirect). Communication challenges create barriers to effective teamwork by reducing information sharing and creating interpersonal conflict - or both - so it’s essential to get right.
Leaders can set the tone here, explaining which channels are best used for different types of communication and tasking teams with overcoming any communication challenges together. For example, informal discussions and catch ups might be best hosted through a Teams or Slack channel, whereas sharing important updates on projects or work in progress should be done through regular meetings, and then documented and shared via email and cloud-hosted documents.
It’s also important to address language and accent challenges. Non-fluent team members may well be the most expert on the team, but their difficulty communicating knowledge can make it hard for the team to recognise and utilise their expertise. If teammates become frustrated or impatient with a lack of fluency, interpersonal conflicts can arise. Non-native speakers may become less motivated to contribute, or anxious about their performance evaluations and future career prospects. The organisation as a whole pays a greater price: Its investment in a diverse team fails to pay off.
Where accents or language might be a barrier, consider addressing the challenge up front and tasking the team to find a solution. This might include leaders setting the tone by explaining that each team member has been bought on board because they are experts on their field, so challenges with communicating across different languages need to be overcome.
There is no right or wrong way, but everyone should feel comfortable to experiment with new-to-them ways of communicating to find a compromise in the middle ground.

Communicate, and respect, boundaries.

Just as women wearing trousers, or anyone wearing trainers to work was once unthinkable but now commonplace, so too have many subjects and social norms become less taboo. Mental health, menopause and topics around gender roles are often being spoken about in the office – however it’s important to remember that just like an individual’s culture, other factors such as class, politics, personality, religion or educational background may also impact how comfortable they might feel talking about such things in the office,as can their age and upbringing.
Recognising, identifying and understanding the different boundaries of each team member when talking about such topics is important for everyone on the team – and this is where creating an environment where there is psychological safety must be prioritised. Managers and leaders need to ensure that the team culture allows individuals to feel safe and supported to speak up, share ideas, ask for help and take risks.

Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority

A challenge inherent in diverse, modern teams is that by design, they have a flatter structure than previous models. But team members from some different cultures and generations can be uncomfortable working within flat teams. Again, creating a sense of psychological safety can help combat this, and one way to do this is through an inclusive decision-making process that celebrates open dialogue.
Some actions to take to embed this could include making that extra effort to ensure every voice is heard and considered in meetings by calling out specific teammates for their inputs. For instance, younger cohorts may be worried about their capabilities compared to more experienced team members; or certain cultures encourage a much more hierarchical form of working so might not feel comfortable to speak up in front of more senior employees. Encourage questions, make space for everyone to have a say and continually remind your team that diversity of thought and ideas increase innovation and insight- this in turn allows the team to make better decisions to appeal to a customer base that is often even more diverse than who is in the room.
Ensuring curiosity is encouraged is also key to help a team avoid any ‘us versus them’ type of thinking. Accepting that we are all fundamentally different people with equally valuable insights to offer will help bridge any gaps between generations or cultures.
Managers could also consider structural changes to the teams by creating smaller working groups of mixed generations and cultures. And continue to change the memberships of these teams so that all team members have a chance to get to know and respect everyone else on the team. Remember though, at some point the team will have to assemble the pieces that the subgroups have come up with, so this approach relies on another structural change – someone to become the mediator in order to see that the various pieces fit together.
Our newly diverse workplaces have the ability to bring many great innovations and changes, but to work effectively, we need to work together and respect the differences between all individuals. 

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