Building bridges between generations

by Jennifer Crow

The federal government doesn't generally have the reputation of being a collaborative community, yet my agency – the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, U.S. Treasury – counts collaboration as a core value. 

That’s likely why the branch manager of a 30-person accounting group asked the coaching team for help with generational differences. Three distinct generations (Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial) share a work environment designed by a fourth – the Traditionalist. Differences in communication, interaction styles, and approach to work were affecting the team. 

It was the first solid chance to bring the power of circle to change how the coach team works with groups. It was also a chance to help those groups create a cohesive community through intentional conversation and attentive listening. 

I designed a three-hour session, working with two fellow coaches, to flesh out the plan: to combine circle practice with World Café. 

We set up the circle along with four separate tables labeled with each generation’s birth years. We purposefully jumped right in, directing participants to find the table holding their birth years. Each cohort then discussed and captured the strengths their respective generations bring to the workplace. 

Returning to circle for an introductory talking-piece round, we invited them to share some event or remembrance from their youth that had most shaped their adult selves. Person after person, we heard the thread of families and communities woven throughout –evidence that we are more alike than different. The further around the circle we moved, the more we could feel the group dropping into a sense of acknowledgement of that – head nods, smiles, a chuckle of recognition at someone’s story. 

Three World Café rounds sent members from each cohort to a different generational table (but not to their own) to consider two questions: What’s enjoyable and what’s challenging about working with this generation? (Because there were no existing Traditionalists on their team, that table’s question was tweaked to “What’s enjoyable and what’s challenging about the system in which we are working?”) The third round added a final task: Harvest and report what surfaced for both enjoyable and challenging issues. 

A World Café round

A World Café round

The cohorts then regrouped at their own generational tables to discuss the collective wisdom that had emerged from the other generations about their specific generation. 

It was an eye-opening experience for everyone. We witnessed (with a bit of awe) how the process beautifully nurtured awareness in every cohort of how different generations perceive and treasure them. At the same time, we noted how the conversations were “outing” generational differences and irritations safely, allowing the team to begin reframing its sense of self. 

When the manager first came to us, it was an attempt to “fix” the youngest members of the work team – those “pesky” Millennial workers who just don’t fall into the accepted norm. But as the morning drew to a close, what emerged was a burgeoning understanding of how those Millennials – and every other generation – carry their own attributes into the workplace and how valuable those differences can be. We saw flexibility from all ages as these 30 individuals began the process of becoming more cohesive. 

From the youngest Millennial to the oldest Baby Boomer, a new collaborative vision was forming, and it was amazing to watch. To encourage continued development, we provided sticky notes to each person. They captured and shared actions they were committed to taking as a way to build upon what worked well and to mitigate what created friction for others. 

Handout created by Jennifer

Handout created by Jennifer

The takeaway round sent chills down my spine. The major theme was a repurposing of their desire to continue to learn from – and to teach – one another. They had reaffirmed their understanding of what strengths they bring, what the other generations enjoyed about working with them, and, yes, what was challenging about their generation. They walked away with a much better understanding and respect for the other generations, not just their own perspectives. 

We left the group with a challenge: to establish mixed-generation mentoring circles to continue to deepen their progress, especially as the as-yet unnamed Generation Z (Cloud Generation?) begins to join the workforce. We’ll be checking in with them in a few months. 

A few weeks after the program, we got word that the members were still talking about the session during staff meetings. 

Key learnings

This experience gave me greater trust in the process of circle. Quite simply, it works. And it works in places where it’s a bit of an alien concept, like government, where management tends to be hierarchical. It works when the intent is there, when the structure holds together, and when participants allow curiosity and welcome new perspectives. It works when the conversation is rich, and deep, and meaningful. 

One participant spoke of how it was a priceless gift to simply sit in circle and see everyone’s faces – some of whom she barely knew – and to really listen and learn more about them. Isn't that the heart of circle – the sharing of stories, and the forging of community as a result? 

Jennifer Crow

Jennifer Crow

Jennifer Crow is a personal and systems coach who has coached individuals and teams at the Bureau of the Fiscal Service since 2009. In 2015, she attended The Circle Way practicum and advanced practicum, bringing that practice back to the workplace and introducing it to her fellow coaches. Outside work, she co-facilitates an Authentically You Circle of awesome women, and is a certified divorce coach who mentors students seeking their certification in that field. Jennifer has deepened her circle practice via an Art of Hosting workshop, and is just beginning to work with the customer service division at the Treasury, as well as with a local nonprofit.

Postscript: We've received a number of requests for Jennifer's handout (shown in the photo above). She has generously shared it, and you may use this document under the condition that you do not change it. You can download it here.

The bridge photo in the header is by Jonathan Hartsaw and is used under this creative license