For the first time in history, there are five generations working side by side: the Traditional Generation (born pre-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1980), Generation Y (1981-1995), and the Linkster Generation (born after 1995). Since conflicts often arise in a multigenerational environment, it’s helpful to have some understanding of the differences between employees of distinct generations.
Each generation has been influenced by the major historical events, social trends, and cultural phenomena of their time, shaping their ideas about everything from expectations and perceptions about what the working environment will provide and how they should behave as employees, to company loyalty and work ethic.
Here are some guidelines for resolving intergenerational conflict:
1. Look at the generational factor. Is this conflict generational, or is there something else going on? For example, Traditionals and Baby Boomers don’t like to be micromanaged, while Gen Yers and Linksters crave specific, detailed instructions about how to do things and are used to hovering authorities. There is almost always a generational component to conflict; recognizing this offers new ways to resolve it.
2. Consider the generational values at stake. Each generation is protecting a distinct set of values, and conflict may threaten these values. For example, Baby Boomers value teamwork, cooperation, and buy-in, while Gen Xers prefer to make a unilateral decision and move on–preferably solo.
3. Air different generations’ perceptions. When employees of two or more generations are involved in a workplace conflict, they can learn a great deal by sharing their perceptions. For instance, a Traditional may find a Gen Yer’s lack of formality and manners offensive, while a Gen Yer may feel dissed when this older employee fails to respect her opinions and input. Have each party use “I” statements to avoid potentially negative confrontations.
4. Find a generationally appropriate fix. You can’t change people’s life experience. But you can work with the set of workplace attitudes and expectations that come from it. So, for instance, if you have a knowledgeable Boomer who is frustrated by a Gen Yer’s lack of experience coupled with his sense of entitlement, turn the Boomer into a mentor. Or you may have a Gen Xer who is slacking off and phoning it in. Instead of punishing him, give him a challenging assignment, the fulfillment of which is linked to a tangible reward.
5. Find commonality and complements. When we study generations, some common and complementary characteristics emerge–and these can be exploited when dealing with conflict between them. For instance, Traditionals and Generation Y employees both tend to value security and stability. Traditionals and Boomers tend to resist change–but both crave training and development. Gen X and Gen Y employees place a high value on workplace flexibility and work-life balance. Boomers and Linksters are most comfortable with diversity and alternative lifestyles. Gen Y and Linksters are technologically adept and committed to socially responsible policies.
6. Learn from each other. Each generation has valuable lessons to teach the next. For example, Traditionals and Boomers have a wealth of knowledge and tricks of the trade that younger workers need. Generation X employees are widely known for their fairness and mediation abilities. Generation Y workers are technology wizards. And Linksters hold clues to future workplace, marketing, and business trends.
Larry and Meagan Johnson, a father-daughter team, are the Johnson Training Group. They are leading experts on managing multigenerational workplaces, and are coauthors of Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters–Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work (Amacom, 2010).