More Than a Generation: How to Connect in the Classroom


Factors to consider when attempting to make a meaningful connection with a diverse, ever-changing, technology-obsessed workforce.

For the first time in history, four generations are represented in the workforce. This sociological anomaly has led management gurus to hyper-focus on intergenerational relationships and communication dynamics. In pursuit of the ever-elusive increase in organizational performance, we’ve seen a proliferation of group profiles, value summaries, and various assessments to help identify motivation triggers for each demographic. But does the generation factor warrant so much attention?

Let’s face it. There’s a certain convenience to classification. Given the wealth of stimuli we encounter and are called upon to process each day, it’s a virtual necessity. Still, there are times when stereotypical descriptors and “these kids today” sentiments are not enough, when we should resist the easy road and strive to make a deeper connection.

The following will help trainers reach beyond broad-based classifications and create the type of relationships that spark true understanding and behavior change in and out of the classroom.

Clarify the Goal

Seasoned trainers understand that the objective matters. Even before considering participant demographics, it’s important to specify the content required and clarify your intentions for its distribution and assimilation. Assuming you are after more than simple information dissemination, trainers should answer the following:

  • What gap in performance does the course hope to address?
  • What is the ideal framework(s) for fostering understanding—e.g., lecture, role-play, or group exercise?
  • What specific behavior change do you expect to see as a result of the offering?
  • How will you measure its initial and long-term adoption in the workplace?
  • Too often trainers and course designers appeal to the lowest common denominator, an approach that results in little more than a tick box exercise. Taking the audience out of the equation (at least initially) frees developers and allows them to concentrate on organizational need without restriction. Once the optimal solution is examined, realities such as budget, timing, and available human and technological resources can be considered.

Recognize Kaleidoscope of Variables

Having fine-tuned the required content and optimal method of distribution, trainers can begin to think about the individual audiences they face and how to tailor the message and approach to achieve maximum performance improvement. Of course, it is not an easy task. In addition to the generational factors, pundits encourage trainers to take the following factors into consideration:

  • Learning Styles: From visual to auditory, kinesthetic to verbal, trainers are expected to simultaneously appeal to the broad spectrum of ways in which people absorb information.
  • Communication Styles: At the same time, trainers are called upon to navigate the various approaches participants have to express their ideas and inputs on the course material. This can range from assertiveness and aggression to cooperative and submissive. If conflict erupts, experts offer another host of factors to consider regarding the way participants engage in that dynamic—see Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode styles.
  • Motivation Styles: Of course, getting people to learn involves more than a simple give-and-take in the classroom. Many experts advise a deeper analysis such as David C. McClelland’s motivation styles (achievement, affiliation, power). Understanding this element can help trainers encourage their participants to actively engage in learning.
  • Behavior/Personality Styles: Whether you use DISC, MBTI, or another tool, trainers often are expected to have a handle on the various personality styles displayed by participants and an ability to flex according to the needs of the individual. This is particularly true during one-to-one coaching.
  • Culture: In the article Besting the Culture Challenge I offered tips for creating rapport with participants while working abroad. Given the growing differentiation of local workforces, trainers face similar challenges at home. To be effective, they must consider logistical questions such as: Should program materials and presentation style be adjusted to fit the cultural dynamics of various audience members?
  • Gender:Despite all the advances we’ve made in this area, some pundits even call for trainers to be mindful of the gender dynamic to ensure a balanced discussion in classroom conversation.

Like many, I can appreciate the value of knowing one’s audience, but it seems we’ve taken the notion a bit too far. While, I’m sure there are many seasoned trainers among this readership pool, I’d be surprised if any could properly evaluate and assimilate all the factors above…in addition to the generational dynamic in real time.

So what’s the solution?

Realize You Don’t Get It…Really, You Don’t

People are tricky. Researchers will do their best to make them seem less so by offering a variety of assessments and approaches to neatly shrink-wrap your audience into convenient categories. There is value to the analysis of course, but outside the lab things tend to get messy.

Some novice trainers will ignore the factors above, focus on the content, and plow through their agenda using their own approach and style. Others will try to account for the variables through preparation and become overwhelmed. Like most things, success is this space comes from admitting your limitations and adopting a balanced approach. This involves developing an awareness of participant demographic factors, but not becoming trapped by them.

Remember Your Purpose and Adjust

Training is, at its core, about helping people become exceptional. To be effective, you must have the flexibility and desire to do whatever it takes to help your participants understand, absorb, and use the information they are exposed to in the classroom. The following are just a few ideas to help you make that happen:

  • Look beyond labels. People are more than the sum of their assessments. Not all Gen Y participants are tech-savvy, and not all Baby Boomers are still struggling to set the clock on their DVR.
  • Set the bar high. You are not doing anyone a favor by dumbing down a course. Forget the smile sheet and teach what needs to be taught. Training is an investment. This is not about making friends. It’s about helping people be remarkable.
  • Don’t make assumptions. Rude isn’t what it used to be. The participant fidgeting with his smart phone might be looking up words, Googling the slang you hadn’t realize you used, or performing a quick translation. Set ground rules for technology usage in diverse settings and then push people to be their best, using tools as needed.
  • Encourage collaboration. If you employ technology as part of your blended learning approach, leverage your tech-savvy participants to help those who are less familiar. Then encourage the beneficiaries to return the favor. Peer-to-peer learning is powerful.
  • No free rides. It’s important to understand that, for example, introverts are not inclined to clamor for the presentation role in a group project. Still, letting them shirk the responsibility only devalues the learning opportunity. When using group work as part of the lesson, establish a “safe environment” and then encourage people to take on the thing they’d most like to avoid. Stretch assignments are the cornerstone of development.
  • Command attention. In an ever-increasing technology-savvy world, trainers have become preoccupied with discovering how to hold the attention span of the average participant, whether she is a workforce newbie or a time-crunched executive. While not the primary responsibility of a trainer, it’s sometimes helpful to underscore the organization’s commitment to the group via the direct investment in training. Time—especially face-to-face time—means money, and that’s something all people understand. Ask for and expect commitment to the learning time.

Make the Connection

Familiarizing yourself with generational factors can help round out your understanding of group dynamics and is a valuable addition to the style and culture-based assessments noted above. That said, whether you’re conducting an intern orientation for a collection of early talent, Gen Y participants, a leadership seminar for a bunch of Baby Boomers, or a management course attended by a diverse set of employees from veterans to Gen Xers, in the end, the connection you seek is personal. Seasoned trainers understand this and the importance of digging beyond the basics. The extra effort is what makes the interactions and the lessons memorable.

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