How to Manage Intergenerational Conflict in the Workplace

 

By Arlene S. Hirsch February 5, 2020
older and younger workers arguing

​When Brian Formato began working as an HR manager for Golden Books, the editorial staffers of the now-defunct publisher of children's books were mostly in their late 50s or early 60s and had been with the company for 25 years or longer.

After the company was purchased, it added more than 200 new jobs in one year, with most new hires being recent college grads. The new generation of employees brought fresh ideas but were also far more focused on immediate gratification than long-term success, Formato said. As a result, many veteran employees took early retirement because they couldn't stand by and watch the company they had devoted their careers to change so drastically overnight.

"What was left was a group of high-energy amateurs that lacked the industry knowledge, as well as the discipline, to negotiate attractive deals with the writers," Formato said. Revenues soon fell. "After more than 50 years in business, the company was forced into bankruptcy."

While this may sound like a typical clash between Millennials and Baby Boomers, it's noteworthy that this happened before Millennials were in the workforce and when most Boomers were in their 40s. However, it does highlight the perennial clash that occurs—in every generation—between newcomers with fresh perspectives and more-experienced elders.

There are at least four generations now in the workplace: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z. Managing a multigenerational workforce with so many different perspectives, experiences, values and goals poses a unique organizational challenge for company leaders, managers and HR professionals. However, "generational differences" aren't always the real issue.

"Companies invest millions of dollars in training and development because of their beliefs about generational differences," said Jennifer C. Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., and co-author of What Millennials Want from Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today's Workforce (McGraw-Hill Education, 2015). "They do it because they believe it's true, even though the evidence doesn't support those beliefs."

Deal believes that life stage and position are better predictors of behavior than the generation a person was born into. "Most intergenerational conflicts are fundamentally about power or clout," she said. "A young person who wants more clout wants to be noticed. They have new ideas that aren't being listened to. An older person wants their experience to be recognized and appreciated. Everyone wants to be heard and respected."

We need to be careful about generational research because it puts people in a box, said Val Grubb, author of Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality (Wiley, 2016) and CEO of Val Grubb and Associates in New Orleans. "The key to understanding someone's behavior is to look at the individual, and the best way to find out how to motivate and engage is to ask them what matters to them."

Establishing Norms for Working Together

Haydn Shaw still finds value in traditional generational research, as long as it does not lead to stereotyping.

"Statistical generalizations are an aid to conversation, not a substitute for it. When it comes to understanding another person, nothing replaces conversation," said Shaw, author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart (Tyndale Momentum, 2013). "The greatest fear in my work is that people will try to shortcut by using the categories rather than the conversations."

To stimulate productive conversations, Shaw has identified numerous "sticking points" where generational differences tend to emerge, particularly around the use of technology, communication, feedback, time management, work/life balance and organizational structure. Managers need to start conversations at those points so they can better understand the situation.

In Tammy Erickson's experience, misunderstandings about time and place are common among team members from different generations.

"Older generations tend to be more linear and traditional, while younger generations are looser and more spontaneous around time and place," said Erickson, CEO of Boston-based consulting firm Tammy Erickson Associates. To resolve those differences, she recommends that managers determine which norms work best for the team based on collective preferences and the work that needs to be accomplished.

Preferences around the use of technology is another potential sticking point. Generally, older employees tend to prefer e-mail, while younger employees prefer texting. While preferences matter, experts say the needs and goals of the team as a whole should take priority over any individual preference.

According to research conducted by Kathryn Bartol, a professor of leadership and innovation at the University of Maryland, College Park, communication among team members improves significantly when teams match the technology to the task. While text-based media is generally more useful for sharing daily information, for example, video chats and telephone conversations are better for brainstorming, problem-solving and relationship-building.

Shaw has developed a five-part process to help resolve these differences:

  1. Acknowledge. Talk about generational differences. "You can't solve a problem if you don't acknowledge it exists."
  2. Appreciate. Focus on the "why," not the "what," and the common needs. "The 'what' divides us. The 'why' is a uniter."
  3. Flex. Agree on how to accommodate different approaches.
  4. Leverage. Maximize the strengths of each generation. For example, if an organization decides to use the messaging platform Slack as a communication tool, there will inevitably be people who are uncomfortable with a technology they don't recognize or understand. A manager or leader can recruit an older team member who is comfortable and experienced in using this technology to coach, train and mentor the novice Slack users.
  5. Resolve. Determine which option will yield the best results if flexing isn't enough.

Dismantling Stereotypes One Relationship at a Time

"Stereotyping is a symptom of discrimination. It's important to treat people equally but not necessarily the same," Formato said. "Self-awareness is the key to effectively managing generational differences. Managers must be in touch with their own beliefs, values and work attitudes and understand that these may be different from the people they manage."

Managers and leaders need that self-awareness to make sure their own biases are not skewing how work is distributed. "Subtle things that leaders do can undercut respect for diversity of age," Grub said. "Who do you give plum assignments to? Do you automatically assign younger employees to technology because you assume older employees can't handle it? These biases stifle enthusiasm and innovation."

In an Addison Group study of 1,000 workers representing multiple generations, 90 percent reported satisfaction with the diversity of age ranges in their workplace. However, the study also found that 35 percent feel their company's culture and processes favor one generation over others. Forty-five percent of respondents feel their employers are biased toward Millennials.

Rather than prefer one generation over another, organizations need to develop and recognize the unique value of each individual, as well as the synergy that can be created between people with different experiences and perspectives.

Formato encourages companies to use appreciative inquiry to advance that goal. Appreciative inquiry focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses by recognizing that people with different perspectives and experiences and at different life stages are all able to work collaboratively.

The leader can also help team members build positive relationships by encouraging them to get to know each other better. Volunteer programs often promote this kind of camaraderie, as do team-building exercises.

Formato uses Patrick Lencioni's personal histories activity to help team members build trust and find common ground. Each person on a team prepares a slide with photos and answers these three questions:

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. How many siblings do you have, and where do you fall in that order?
  3. Describe a unique or interesting challenge or experience that shaped who you are.

"This activity always brings a team closer together," Formato said. "People find common experiences, and they get to know the whole person."

This can happen spontaneously as well. When the president of a small New York City foundation asked his employees to share stories about their sports activities in high school, he was delighted to learn that there was a high school fencer on his team. What he didn't anticipate is how the younger women (most of whom were administrative staff) would end up bonding with a much older female executive when she lamented how, in a pre-Title IX era, there weren't a lot of sports teams for women. This led to an equally interesting conversation about life lessons learned through team sports and other team activities.

Although the president started the conversation as an icebreaker, he opened the door to a deeper discussion about what it means to be a member of a team and how each person's personal history informs his or her participation as a team member.

Uniting Around a Common Purpose

When team members rally around a common vision, purpose or goal, there is often a greater sense of unity that, in turn, translates into a better customer experience.

When Formato first began working with a small software-as-a-service company in Santa Clara, Calif., the CEO and senior leadership wanted him to help the team become more closely aligned. One of his first efforts to do so was to ask the team, "What does this company do better, special or different?"

The answers were not well-aligned. After diving deeper into their successes, they discovered that while the software solution was important, what they were really selling was their knowledge and ability to manage relationships.

"They build trust with their clients and are truly focused on customer success," Formato said. He describes this as their "groove" and emphasizes that, as they scale, they must keep their focus on the customer experience. It's a reminder that, as the company continues to grow, customer retention will still be as important as new-customer acquisition.

Although each member of the team has personal strengths, weaknesses and preferences, what unites them all is striving toward a common purpose and set of goals.

"It's up to the leader to make sure they are leveraging their strengths and working together as a team," Formato said.

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. 

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