Five Steps to Resolving Workplace Conflict

By Larry and Meagan Johnson  |  Posted 2010-12-21

For the first time in history, five generations are working side by side. Since conflicts often arise in a multigenerational environment, it’s important for managers to understand the differences among the generations.

Traditionals (born before 1945): “The Depression Babies” are influenced by the Great Depression and World War II. They are loyal and respectful of authority; stubbornly independent; dependable with a great work ethic; experienced with a lot to offer; high commitment to quality; great communication and interpersonal skills; able and willing to learn.

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964): “The Woodstock Generation” is influenced by the Sixties, the Vietnam War and postwar social change. They are interested in spirituality and 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.

Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980): “The Latchkey Generation” is influenced by pop culture and may be children of divorce. They are highly independent workers who prefer to fly solo; responsible, family-focused; little patience for bureaucracy and what they consider nonsensical policies; constantly preparing for potential next job; hardworking and wanting to contribute; expect to be valued and rewarded; thrive on adrenaline-charged assignments.

Generation Y (born between 1981 and 1995): “The Entitled Generation” is influenced by technology and doting parents. They are into friends and socializing; at ease with technology and multitasking; used to hovering, involved authorities; value social responsibility; expect praise and notice; need constructive feedback routinely; want work-life balance; will stay put if their loyalty is earned.

Linksters (born after 1995) “The Facebook Crowd” is influenced by a chaotic, media-saturated world. 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 life styles; involved in green causes and social activism; loathe dress codes.

Resolving Intergenerational Conflicts

Here are five tips for dealing with intergenerational friction:

1. Look at the generational factor. There is almost always a generational component to conflict: Recognizing this offers new ways to resolve it. For example, Traditionals and Baby Boomers don’t like to be micromanaged, while Gen Y employees and Linksters crave specific, detailed instructions about how to do things and are used to hovering authorities. Baby Boomers value teamwork, cooperation and buy-in, while Gen X individuals prefer to make unilateral decisions and move on—preferably solo.

2. Air different generations’ perceptions. When employees of two or more generations are involved in a workplace conflict, invite them to share their perceptions. For instance, a Traditional employee may find a Gen Y worker’s lack of formality and manners offensive, while a Gen Y staffer may feel “dissed” when an older employee fails to respect his or her opinions and input.

3. Find a generationally appropriate fix. Work with the set of workplace attitudes and expectations that come from everyone’s generational experience. For instance, if you have a knowledgeable Boomer who is frustrated by a Gen Y employee’s lack of experience and sense of entitlement, turn the Boomer into a mentor. Or if you have a Gen X individual who is slacking off, give him or her a super-challenging assignment linked to a tangible reward.

4. Find commonality. Shared and complementary characteristics can be exploited when dealing with intergenerational conflict. For instance, Traditionals and Gen Y employees both tend to value security and stability. Traditionals and Boomers tend to resist change—but 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 life styles. Gen Y employees and Linksters are technologically adept and committed to socially responsible policies.

5. Learn from each other. Traditionals and Boomers have a wealth of knowledge that younger workers need. Gen X employees are known for their fairness and mediation abilities. Gen Y workers are technology wizards. And Linksters hold clues to future workplace, marketing and business trends.

Organizations that make an effort to reconcile the differences and emphasize the similarities among the various generations will be rewarded with intergenerational harmony and increased productivity.

Larry and Meagan Johnson, a father-daughter team, are partners in the Johnson Training Group. They are experts on managing multigenerational workplaces, and are co-authors of Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work.