Pub. 13 2023-2024 Issue 5

Effective Communication Begins With Speaking the Same Language

In today’s diverse and multi-generational workplace, the way leaders communicate can significantly impact their effectiveness and the cohesion of their teams. One aspect of communication that is often overlooked is the potential disconnect that can arise from the use of language, particularly when there is a significant age difference between leaders and their team members. This article explores the extent to which language and generational differences might affect leadership effectiveness and team dynamics.

The Language of Leadership Across Generations

Leadership is as much about inspiring and guiding as it is about communicating. When there is a generational gap between leaders and their team members, particularly in scenarios where senior leaders are managing much younger teams, the language used can either bridge or widen this gap. Terms and phrases that were commonplace and resonated with one generation may seem outmoded or irrelevant to another. For instance, idioms or cultural references that are second nature to a baby boomer may be completely foreign or even amusing to a millennial or Gen Z team member.

The use of antiquated phrases or references by leaders may not only cause confusion but could also inadvertently signal a disconnect with the current cultural and social milieu that younger generations inhabit. This can make leaders appear less relatable, potentially undermining their effectiveness.

For Example …

If you’re looking for some examples of antiquated phrases or words that might not connect with younger team members, they’re not hard to find. But here are some of the ones that are particularly “disengaging:”

  1. “Circle Back”: This term is often used to mean revisiting a topic or discussion at a later time. Younger people might prefer terms like “revisit” or “discuss again later.”
  2. “Boots on the Ground”: This phrase, with military origins, refers to having people physically present in a field or market area. Younger individuals might simply say “team in the field” or “people on site.”
  3. “Synergy”: While still used in business contexts, younger workers might find this term overused or vague, preferring more specific terms like “collaboration” or “teamwork.”
  4. “Dial Into a Call”: This refers to joining a conference call, a phrase that harks back to the era of rotary phones. Younger people might say “join a call” or “log into a meeting.”
  5. “Par for the Course”: This golf metaphor means something is normal or expected. Younger people might say “typical” or “usual.”
  6. “Run It Up the Flagpole”: This means to present an idea and see if it gets approval. Younger colleagues might say “test an idea” or “get feedback.”
  7. “Low-Hanging Fruit”: Refers to tasks or goals that are easily achievable. Young people might describe these as “easy wins” or “quick gains.”

Understanding the Language Barrier

It’s crucial to understand what’s at stake when communication falters across generational lines. Language is a powerful tool that shapes not only how we express our thoughts but also how we perceive the world around us. When leaders use language that is out of sync with their younger team members, it can create a sense of “us” versus “them,” fostering an environment where younger employees feel misunderstood or undervalued.

Furthermore, language is closely tied to cultural trends, technological advancements and social norms, all of which evolve rapidly. Leaders who fail to adapt their communication style may struggle to engage effectively with younger team members who are more in tune with current trends and digital communication norms.

The Impact on Team Dynamics

The implications of a language disconnect in the workplace extend beyond mere misunderstandings. It can have a tangible impact on team dynamics, employee engagement, and productivity. Younger team members might feel alienated or less inclined to approach leaders with ideas or concerns, leading to a breakdown in essential communication channels within the team. This alienation can manifest in decreased morale, lower job satisfaction and, ultimately, a higher turnover rate among younger employees.

On the other hand, leaders who make an effort to understand and adapt to the evolving linguistic landscape can create an inclusive and dynamic work environment. Such leaders are often perceived as more empathetic, approachable and in tune with their team’s needs, fostering a culture of open communication and mutual respect.

Adapting Leadership Communications

Adapting to a changing linguistic landscape doesn’t mean leaders must adopt every new slang term or meme that emerges on social media. However, it does require a conscious effort to understand the communication preferences and cultural touchpoints of younger generations. This adaptation might involve:

  • Staying Informed: Keeping abreast of current trends, popular culture and the digital platforms where younger generations spend their time can provide valuable insights into their world.
  • Active Listening: Engaging in active listening demonstrates respect and a willingness to understand, helping to bridge any gaps in communication.
  • Language Flexibility: Being flexible with language and open to using simpler, more direct forms of communication can make interactions more effective.
  • Cultural Sensitivity Training: Regular training sessions can help leaders and employees alike to appreciate and understand the diverse perspectives within their team.
  • Feedback Mechanisms: Encouraging feedback from team members about communication styles can provide leaders with insights into how they’re perceived and how to improve.

Embracing the Change

The dynamic nature of language in the workplace is a reflection of broader societal changes. Leaders who embrace this change and make an effort to adapt are more likely to foster a collaborative and inclusive work environment. It’s important to recognize that adapting one’s communication style is not about compromising on professionalism or core values; rather, it’s about enhancing the ability to connect and engage with a diverse team.

The Role of Younger Team Members

While much of the onus is on leaders to adapt, younger team members also have a role to play. They can help bridge the gap by being patient, understanding the context of different communication styles and, when necessary, helping to translate or explain current trends and terminologies.

While a disconnect in language and communication style between older leaders and younger team members can pose challenges, it also presents an opportunity for growth and learning on both sides.

Give it a shot. Then let’s circle back later.

Karen Brown is the CEO of Exponential Results, specializing in leadership development and executive coaching. She can be reached at Follow her on LinkedIn at

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