Communicating Across the Army

By Command Sgt. Maj. Jerimiah GanOctober 8, 2019

In the Army many missions and tasks occur every day and there are many aspects that are required to ensure their success. One often overlooked aspect and arguably the most important is the methods we use to communicate with one another. I'm not talking about the obvious barriers such as languages or dialects but rather the generational barrier. Understanding the generational differences in communication is paramount. If used correctly, it will not only ease the flow of communicating, but may give clarity for methods used by others.

Across the U.S. Military there are four generations at work every day. Yes, the primary generations in the Army is largely from generations "Y" (the "Millennials") and "Z," but when you look across the entire enterprise we are comprised of four generations. This is important because no one operates in a bubble and often times we are required to talk to offices and organizations that may consist of individuals from multiple generations.

According to the Pew Research Center, the generations consist of:

Generation Z Born from 1997 to present

Generation Y or Millennials Born from 1981 to 1996

Generation X Born from 1965 to 1980

Baby Boomers Born from 1946 to 1964

If you are a drill sergeant in the trenches getting it done, an instructor on the platform, a squad leader, company commander, one of our valued Army Civilians ensuring mission success through expertise and continuity, or a senior leader, you must know your audience when communicating. We all want positive experiences when coordinating efforts, teaching, giving orders or when receiving simple customer service. Having an effective, well received conversation is the art of communication.

The "Baby Boomer" Generation, born between 1946 and 1964, make up a large part of our Army Civilian work force. Throughout their careers they have witnessed several changes from the introduction of computers to the smart phone. This generation is extremely flexible and adaptive to change. They often don't invite themselves into a conversation but once invited have valuable input. They prefer a face to face conversation over an email, phone call or text message. Boomers like situations thought through and issues addressed from all angles, not the 'quick fix." Understand that this generation was raised by the "Traditional/Greatest Generation," this is important and has a lot to do with the length of a conversation. It may take 20-25 minutes for a Boomer to feel like they have made their point. As a Boomer, it's important to note that follow on generations do not require as much time and you could lose the attention of an audience rather quickly.

Generation "X," born between 1965 and 1980, make up the majority of the senior leadership across the Army and several within our Army Civilian workforce. This is a smaller cohort of a generation in between two very large generations (Boomers and Millennials). This generation is much more tech savvy than their predecessors. They crave feedback and will chime into a conversation if they feel they have valued input. A Generation "X" prefers emails and face to face interactions, but short and to the point. Although they are accepting to the advances in technology, it is important to understand that many, if not all, were well into their mid 20's before they owned a cell phone. It may take 15 minutes for a Generation "X" to feel like they have made their point in a conversation.

Millennials or Generation "Y," born between 1981 and 1996 make up the majority of our ranks and formations. This generation is no stranger to the use of smart phones and computers, having been raised with the use of the devices in everyday life. This generation craves and needs constant feedback, counseling and coaching. They are goal oriented and want to prove themselves, talking down to them will result in negative outcomes. This generation is crucial to your mission. They must be able to receive, translate and transmit orders and directives to subordinates. Millennials are not patient and have no problem executing in the absence of guidance or orders. The use of social media is a part of their culture and they would rather send a text than have a phone conversation. Due to the advances in technology and the speed of communication, a Generation "Y" will begin to lose interest at the five minute mark of a conversation and likely will not spend much more time than that to feel they adequately made their point.

Generation "Z," born from 1997 to the present. This generation is off the charts in their capabilities of learning and understanding. To put things in perspective, a Generation "X" can comfortably and accurately operate one smart screen at a time. A Millennial can do the same with two. The jump to Generation Z is both impressive and mind boggling, that they have the ability to do the same with five screens with the same accuracy and speed. Email to this generation is snail mail and a phone call would be echoes of silence. Their primary means of communication is social media. The use of emoji's and short hand acronyms, in the aspect of saving time, is widely used. It's been said that if a Generation "Z" has a question that they will have the answer in three clicks or eight seconds. Your window of opportunity to keep their attention is in the ballpark of just under a minute.

In summary, it is often the generational gaps in communication that makes things hard at times, but with a little understanding from both ends, coupled with the willingness to meet in the middle may make communicating easier. Know your audience, think outside the box, and key in on methods and techniques that will ensure a more successful approach. Finally, use this information on how the four different generations communicate to become more self- aware in order to understand how to communicate and lead effectively. To lead is to communicate!

(Editor's note) Command Sgt. Maj. Jerimiah Gan is the Post Command Sergeant Major for the U.S. Army Training Center and Fort Jackson.