Generational communication tips: make your expectations clear

by Betty Lochner on May 16, 2013

Last week I had the privilege of doing a workshop on generational communication for faculty and staff members at the Military Campus of Pierce College.

The students they work with are serving in the military either locally, nationwide or overseas.  Most of there courses have a strong online component, making for many communication challenges. One of them is that they come from and serve all four generations in the work force today.  Just to review them (and maybe find yours), here are the approximate age groups for each generation:


Traditionalists/Veterans –  over age 65;

Boomers – ages 50-65;

Generation X – ages 33-50;

Generation Y/Millenials – ages 18-33

Generational communication problems almost always stem from a misunderstanding of where the other is coming from.  That’s why is it imperative that you make your expectations clear and give appropriate feedback. The number one rule in communication – don’t make any assumptions!

I once hired a person for a receptionist position and told her the dress was business casual.  She came to work on her first day in a skirt that, in my opinion, was too short, a bit too much cleavage showing, and flip flops.

Clearly her idea of business casual leaned toward emphasizing the casual. She is a younger professional (Millenial) and thought she was dressing appropriately. I (a Boomer) explained what business casual looks like in our work place – and gave a specific example.  I learned a valuable lesson — just because I knew what I expected, doesn’t mean someone else does.  You can bet that I make sure that I explain that clearly to new employees now before their first day.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — having clear expectations will eliminate most (if not all) of your communication problems in any situation.

1. Be clear – Be concise and give instructions verbally if possible.

2. Be specific – Don’t leave anything up for self interpretation.  Be as specific as you can.  A phrase like business casual can mean very different things to different generational groups.  For a traditionalist, it may mean a suit and a tie.  For a Millenial, well, you already heard what that can look like.

For example:

  • Here’s how I define business casual attire:  clean, nice pants or skirt – no jeans.
  • Your hours are 8-5.  If you are going to be more than 5 minutes late, I expect a call from you.

3. Give candid feedback – you should always give kind and respectful feedback  to others how they come across.  When working with younger professionals, don’t assume they know your undisclosed expectations.  If you have a different expectation for their behavior, for heaven’s sake, tell them.

4. Ask for understanding – make sure you are understood.  For example, ask: Do you have any questions about how I want this done?…Can you go over how you are going to do this?…Will you please email a progress report at the end of the day?

5. Be positive – Even though every generation is unique in how they may dress, act, and communicate, there is one thing common to all generations —everyone wants and needs regular, positive feedback!

No matter what generation you are communicating with, be clear and specific about what you expect.  Don’t assume they understand what you want, just because you do.  They very likely have a different idea based on their background, skills, and yes, age!


Brietta and BettyBetty Lochner is the Owner of Cornerstone Coaching & Training.  She is also the Director of Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition Program. She specializes in personal and organizational transformation and is the author of  Dancing with Strangers: Communication skills for transforming your life at work and at home and 52 Communication Tips.  Both are available on

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