leaders who listen marydonohue

Leaders Who Listen

The Workplace Was “Built By Boomers” – We Need To Adapt For All Generations

Work sucks – or so the saying goes.

We spend 57% of our waking life working. And 70% of us are disengaged from work.

“That’s a whole lot of people whose lives have a large suckage component.”

So says Dr. Mary Donohue. Who? A leading social scientist whose expertise can help you unlock the secrets to increasing productivity, boosting employee engagement and, ultimately, innovation and happiness at work.

Sound too good to be true? Read on.

You might think that workplace disengagement is about standing desks versus sitting, about telecommuting, tight deliverable deadlines, or simply a workplace that’s under-appreciating their overworked employees.

But what it’s actually about is totally lost in translation.

The State of the Union

At a Talk Boutique event, TEDx speaker Dr. Mary Donohue had only one thing to say: in a digital, multi-generational workplace, we’re all speaking English and yet we’re all speaking vastly different languages.

millennials and boomers

Credit: Talk Boutique

And it is leading to the crumbling of our innovation.

Leaders and senior execs are unable to get their point across.

Boomers are huffing about millennials and Gen X’ers are bemoaning the loss of their beloved Powerpoints.

Debate and innovation are stifled and productivity feels like pulling teeth.

While startups like Uber seem to be cultivating a toxic and transparency-free workplace culture, Microsoft just experienced its most profitable quarter in cloud services and Facebook stock is wildly under-priced and expected to continually rise.

So…who won? Which kind of workplace culture and C-suite executive’s leadership style works best?

According to Dr. Donohue, this is an adversarial question that totally misses the point.

Workplace innovation is about harmony and synergy. But it’s also about answering the question, “What’s in it for me?”

And, as it turns out, the answer is vastly different based on your generational group.

Walking The Talk

Many workplaces today, says Dr. Donohue, have been built by “Boomers” — the age group lumped together as anyone born before the 1960s —  for “Boomers.” It’s not so much about changing leadership styles as it is about making the language of leadership relevant.

When she first takes center stage for her talk, Dr. Mary Donohue, or, “Mer”, as she’s known by students, friends, and clients, is a live-wire who is wittily informal and yet well-spoken, uses visual aids and presents a neat problem with an even neater solution.

Little does her audience realize that these are all intentional affects: her years of research have taught her how to speak to multiple generations at once.

It’s no surprise that she has captured the room, then, and it all has to do with this neat hack, her self-styled “Rosetta Stone” of leadership communication.

Based on her years of research and surveys, Dr. Donohue and her team have developed this nifty cheat-sheet to help typify each generation’s responses — and these clearly stem from collective social events, behaviors and motivators.

If you are a leader at work, it would not be entirely out of place to keep this handy in your pocket.

This “Rosetta Stone” of generational translation comes from Dr. Donohue’s main question she poses the room: “How do you deal with different generations? What stops you from being productive at work?”

Luckily, she’s also armed with the answer, realized through her work. “It’s that [we’re] not listening to each other.”

“What I learned from Napoleon,” she says, gesticulating passionately, “is that you have to be able to shift in order to communicate with someone.”

According to Dr. Donohue, communication is at the center of innovation, technology, and, leadership.

If you want to lead effectively, spur innovation and boost productivity, you have to do more than simply speak: you have to listen to the language being spoken, understand who’s talking and what they’re saying.

Engage By Age

Let’s make it real clear and simple, because we’re talking about communication as a driver of innovation:

“Boomers prefer an auditory style, Gen X prefer a visual style and Millennials prefer a kinesthetic style of communication”.
Dr. Mary Donohue

Wondering why those millennials won’t stop moving around, sit still and work a 9-5?

Wondering why your boss feels “soooo old” to you?

Leaders, it’s time to take a step back and listen. And then, deliver your message in the medium that is going to be the most effective for the generational group you’re addressing.

For boomers, this is auditory. Language rules above all. Use auditory sentence patterns like ‘I hear what you’re saying…” Allow them to talk things out. Expect long-winded emails.

For Gen X, visual cues are best because this group processes information visually. Theirs was the television generation who learned to be scrappy, do more with less and they love a combination of notebooks and technology.

This is why programs like Powerpoint and PDFs are their game.

And what of those millennials, by the way?

They’re all-out adapting, adopting and improving. Their whole life is a series of developmental activities with imposed structure. They crave transparency. So give it to them.

  1. Ask their opinion.
  2. Give them structure, detail and get them to ask, “Why?”
  3. Don’t expect a 9-5 worker. Instead, tell them what you want done and watch them adapt and improve.

If leaders delegate tasks based on this knowledge, and communicate not to close the gaps but actually harness them, they’ll be doing more than playing to strengths— they’ll be empowering and inspiring their employees.


sarah-merekarSarah Merekar is primarily a storyteller who loves to work with and in several different mediums, on various platforms and see how these co-exist and complement each other. She loves hacking product sales and understanding how content creation has an effect on this process. The content she creates for clients is high quality, highly tailored, and on brand, specifically in the form of digital & brand copywriting, design and video.