The Communication Divide: Think Digital, Not Generational

by | Nov 2, 2016 | Advice and How To's, Talent | 0 comments

The Communication Divide: Think Digital, Not Generational


Chris Kurtz

Founder and Principal Consultant at PeerThru


My first outside sales job was going door-to-door selling pest control. Each morning before heading out to our respective routes, we would gather for coffee and donuts, discuss our daily goals and agree on a meeting place at the close of the day where we would tally our numbers and swap ugly bug stories. If we needed to communicate with each other during the day, we would use a pager. This also meant always having a few quarters on hand. If we were just touching base, we would use simple “pager code” to spell out messages the way that you might do using a calculator; “hello” of course still being a basic crowd pleaser among adults and third graders alike. 


This story elicits laughter and an eye-roll from my oldest son, a Junior in High School. I get it, it’s hard to imagine a world where you can’t ask Siri for directions or share images without a trip to the drugstore to get a roll of film developed.  

Anecdotally it’s also reflective of how radically methods of communication have changed. For example, I can comfortably spend an hour in a car, in silence, with that same teenager and then engage in a 30-minute dialogue with him via text when we arrive home.

This communication divide also plays out in the workplace. In almost every organization today we find what I call The Big Four. No, not the Final Four or even the Fantastic Four. I’m talking about the 4 generations that executives, managers and HR leaders are constantly trying to align and engage: The Boomers, The X’ers, The Y generation and of course, The Millennials.


Jumping, Goldfish, Fish.

Nowhere did I feel that challenge more than when I left a traditional, brick-and-mortar organization after 11+ years and moved into the world of tech. Perhaps it was the industry change, or suddenly being surrounded by coworkers with more enthusiasm and exuberance than experience. Maybe it was the hiring of team members with ink still drying on their diploma and resume alike, but already possessed the savvy and sophistication of a Swiss watch.  

In reality, it was a combination of all of these things that opened my eyes to the culture of communication I had assimilated to with both its strengths and shortcomings. As my surroundings changed – yes, there was an obligatory ping-pong table and graffiti on the walls – so too did my paradigm about communication. Things that worked brilliantly for me in the past were now falling flat and I was forced to face my insecurities with tools, time and response. 

In the past 8 years, we’ve all felt that worktime has become fluid.  Communication is an endless stream from multiple sources, no longer confined to e-mails, team meetings, one-on-ones during business hours. Messages drift in constantly from Chatter, Slack, Ryver, Hangouts, Messenger, e-mail and Text. Apps, who’s original intent was to streamline communication are often added to existing channels creating even more noise. Only occasionally do we use the phone to make calls.



tin can phone.communication concept

After a few missteps, I took time to evaluate where the communication gaps on my team were occurring. I no longer saw four generations beholden to their stereotypes (including myself), but a clear distinction between those who adopted and adapted their skills and those who did not. Put another way, the communication divide was digital, not generational.

From a paradigm of a digital divide I approached communication at work differently and put a plan into action. You’ll have your own rules and direction, but here are few we adopted:

1. Challenge Bias and Focus on Skill

Much has been written recently about blind spots and bias that occur within each of us. We all know members of the tech-generation who, by virtue of their EQ have excellent interpersonal skills and I have witnessed octogenarians who IG, Snap, Message and text with the best of them. Again, adoption.

After challenging the bias on our team, we shifted our focus to skill. What were the skills (interpersonal, soft, tech) that we would need to be successful? How would we coach each other to ensure that we all had them?  We found that there is something magic about trusting your peers enough to ask for help and an equal element of magic that comes from helping others.

2. Openly Discuss Communication Expectations

This was perhaps, the greatest step we took towards eliminating communication frustration. By openly discussing and documenting our expectations, we eliminated false-assumptions and created a playbook for new hires as well. Here are a few of our notes:

  1. Unless it’s critical and applies to all, don’t hit “REPLY ALL”
  2. Limit messages sent after 8:00 at night or before 6:30 in the morning. (This especially applies to managers)
  3. Expect and Respect Turnaround Time for the Following:
    1. E-mail reply: within 24 hours
    2. Text: Within the workday
    3. Messenger/Chatter/Slack etc.: Within the workday
    4. Instagram or Facebook photos: It’s ok not to “like”
  4. If you see a missed call, call or text back.
  5. Just like home, if you’re hurt, bleeding or experiencing an emergency, call.

3. It’s OK to Over-Communicate Your Values, Purpose, and Goals

Do you remember the game “Telephone”? It is a humorous reminder of how quickly important details are lost as messages are shared from one person to another. For this reason, I can’t stress enough over-communicating purpose, values, and goals on both sides of the digital divide. 

Every day the game of Telephone is being played out at work. Executives craft brilliant messages passed on to Directors who then interpret and communicate to managers who then interpret and share (or not) with direct reports. Rarely is the original message received as it was intended and we’re openly left discussing things like engagement and alignment.


Breaking Bread is the literal, physical act of sitting down over a meal to communicate or work through a challenge. It is a common practice in conflict resolution. Its significance comes from the subtle reminder that we need food to survive and that we are all human.

And, in an artificially-intelligent, fast-paced, high-touch world, doesn’t it feel good to be human?

Now, how do I tell my 16-year-old that my version of mobile was the really long phone cord that would reach all the way to my room?

Do Good, Be Great.



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