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A New Take on Resolving Intergenerational
Workplace Conflict

by Larry and Meagan Johnson

 
   
 
   

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). Each generation has been influenced by the major historical events, social trends, and cultural phenomena of its time, shaping 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.

Having observed and studied the generational characteristics of the five major working generations, we have identified distinct generational characteristics that have an impact on work styles, team behavior, and communication styles.

Since conflicts often arise in a multigenerational environment, it's helpful to have some understanding of the differences between employees of distinct generations.

First, a "cheat sheet" to the five generations and their respective characteristics, and then we'll look at how one might use this information in a workplace setting, when conflicts flare up.

Generational Characteristics Cheat Sheet

Traditionals

Born before 1945, "The Depression Babies," influenced by the Great Depression and WWII.

Who They Are:

  • Loyal, respectful of authority
  • Stubbornly independent
  • Great work ethic, dependable
  • Masterful, experienced, have lots to offer
  • High commitment to quality
  • Great communication and interpersonal skills
  • Willing and able to learn           

Baby Boomers

Born 1946–1964, "The Woodstock Generation," influenced by Vietnam War, the Sixties, postwar social change.

Who They Are:

  • Interested in spirituality, making a difference
  • Pioneers of antidiscrimination policies
  • Well educated and culturally literate
  • Questioners of authority
  • Good at teamwork, cooperation, and politics
  • Seekers of financial prosperity
  • Not in a rush to retire early
  • Thrive on adrenaline-charged assignments

Generation X

Born 1965–1980, "The Latchkey Generation," children of divorce and pop culture.

Who They Are:

  • Highly independent workers, prefer to fly solo
  • Responsible, family focused
  • Very little patience for bureaucracy and nonsensical policies
  • Constantly preparing for potential next job
  • Hardworking, wanting to contribute
  • Expect to be valued and rewarded
  • Little respect for title, rank, or position

Generation Y

Born 1981–1995. "The Entitled Generation," influenced by technology and doting parents.

Who They Are:

  • Into friends and socializing
  • At ease with technology and multi-tasking
  • Used to hovering, involved authorities
  • Value social responsibility
  • Expect praise and notice
  • Need constructive feedback routinely
  • Want work-life balance
  • Will stay put if loyalty earned 

Linksters

Born after 1995. "The Facebook Crowd," influenced by chaotic, media-saturated world.

Who They Are:

  • Still living at home
  • Used to taking instruction
  • Best friends with their parents
  • Live and breathe technology
  • Tuned in to pop music and TV culture
  • Tolerant of alternative lifestyles
  • Involved in green causes, social activism
  • Loathe dress codes

6 Tips for Resolving Intergenerational Conflict

When conflict arises, keep the above cheat sheet in mind. It will help you navigate through missteps in communication, and give you insights into designing strategies that fit the generations you're dealing with.

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.

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.

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.

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 her, give her a challenging assignment, the fulfillment of which is linked to a tangible reward.

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.

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.

       
   
 
       
   

The Authors

Generations Inc.

Larry and Meagan Johnson, a father-daughter team, are the Johnson Training Group (www.johnsontraininggroup.com), whose clients include several government agencies, American Express, Harley-Davidson, Nordstrom, Dairy Queen, and many others. 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).

 
       
   
 
       
   
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Copyright 2010 by Larry and Meagan Johnson. All rights reserved.

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