Handling conflict between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials can be a challenging task. When such generations are required to work cooperatively, it is not uncommon to see a 'clash of cultures' in the workplace, as there are clear differences between how the generations approach their work, communicate, and perceive their careers and job roles. This is where savvy managers need to lead by example and understand how to satisfy the needs and expectations of each generation.
How are our generations typically identified?
Baby Boomers (mid-50s to late 60s) are hardworking and community-minded employees, often defining themselves by their career role. According to research by the United Nations into staff development and the different generations working together, Baby Boomers live to work, gaining a lot of their self-worth from their job. While they try and achieve some semblance of work-life balance, they prioritise their career and consider a typical working day to be 8am–5pm. They expect younger employees to earn respect and to pay their dues, as they did, and this is a common area of conflict.
Generation X (mid-30s to early 50s) are educated, flexible and fiercely independent. Driven by success, they value being able to work without supervision in order to show their capabilities and worth. As defined by Forbes, their frustration with 'flaky' Millennial colleagues, sometimes seeming more interested in work-life balance than work itself, is one of their main sources of conflict.
Millennials (mid 20s to early 30s) – also known as Generation Y – are confident, creative and independent. Socially connected and tribal, technology – and particularly social media – is central to the way they run their lives. They prefer to learn through experience rather than being told what to do and do not expect to stay in the one career their entire professional lives.
Generation Z are the newest cohort of workers. Already there are signs they are community-minded – globally and locally – and keen to make a difference.
How to reduce conflict between generations
So now we are acquainted with the different generations, what can we do to reduce any conflict between them?
One great way to close the generational gap is to provide Baby Boomers with opportunities to mentor their junior colleagues. This not only makes them feel valued, but also allows them to pass on skills and experience. It can also build mutual trust, understanding and respect within the younger demographics. That said, the learning can go both ways, especially when it comes to the digital revolution. Millennials can be used to mentor the older generations in new thinking and digital strategy.
As retirement approaches, managers need to be prepared to source new leaders and align the business with the next generation. In this sense, having them working closely alongside Generation X and Y employees, who thrive on opportunities to enhance their careers, is a smart move. Make sure the younger generations know that developing good mentoring skills and building collaborative teams is important for future advancement.
Create a united workplace by leveling the playing field and removing any sense of self-hierarchy among employees. Mix and match generations into different teams (where possible) and prompt them to share their skills and strengths. To aid team building, encourage them to hold symposiums and brainstorms, which will allow Baby Boomers to step away from unfamiliar technology and 'back to their roots'. Likewise, Gen Xers and Millennials will appreciate the opportunity to contribute and have their ideas heard so they’re part of the bigger picture. By encouraging collaboration and healthy debate, it will help employees understand what each other have to offer and assist in building strong working relationships.
Respect what’s important to each generation
Each generation has different priorities and in order to reduce conflict, it’s important for all employees to respect what’s important to their colleagues.
We know that Millennials want to understand how their work contributes to the project or team, so as a leader, communicate this clearly so that you can keep them engaged. Their confidence may mask a reluctance to ask for advice, so make sure you create a work environment where it is safe for them to do so. As Millennials thrive on feedback, don’t wait until the annual performance review to provide it. Schedule regular, face-to-face catch-ups so that they’re getting the contact they need.
Consider how each generation likes to work – do your Baby Boomer employees want to work the traditional 9am–5pm work day? Do your Gen X and Y employees want more flexibility in their day to achieve work-life balance? Whatever their needs, take this into consideration and do your best to offer arrangements that suit and are respected by all employees. Communicate your expectations so that each generation understands what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to work hours and productivity.
Businesses that encourage and reward achievement, and foster resilience, mutual respect, openness, collaboration and innovation through the sharing of ideas, regardless of seniority, get the benefits of generational diversity and will find they have less conflict overall.
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