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How to Help Different Generations Get Along at Work

March 01, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

Is conflict at work between people of different ages inevitable? Granted, each generation tends to think it’s the greatest—people sometimes think that no one works more intelligently, effectively, or efficiently than those colleagues who happen to share your own age demographic. Today, the stark contrasts and culture clashes between age groups may be even more pronounced, due to factors such as rapidly evolving technology, more women entering the workforce (and taking top jobs), and a greater number of people working later in life.

In fact, there may be up to five generations represented in a workplace now, spanning from a 23-year-old Centennial, or member of Generation Z (born 1996 or later), to a 76-year-old Traditionalist, or member of the Silent Generation (born in 1945 or earlier). In between them swim Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X’ers (born 1965-1976), and Millennials (born 1977-1995), as defined by The Center for Generational Kinetics. Some grew up on the Internet; others may not know how to Tweet. When there are clashes, the accusations may fly across the divide: “Entitled babies!” “Out-of-it dinosaurs!”

“Age bias is still pretty acceptable. People think it’s normal to write people off for being too young or too old,” says Tamara Thorpe, an organizational development expert. On the other hand, says Phyllis Weiss Haserot, president of Practice Development Counsel, a business consulting firm, “Age discrimination is very difficult to prove.”

If you detect generational tension at work, here are some approaches to consider.

1. Launch An Anonymous Survey

It’s bad for business if you can’t attract and retain talent from multiple generations. “There are very few organizations that are really tracking this—like why people are leaving. They don’t have metrics for it, so they don’t see the urgency,” says Haserot. Exit interviews, she argues, are not necessarily effective because employees may be unwilling to be honest.

Instead, try soliciting anonymous feedback through a survey that makes it clear to employees that there won’t be repercussions for telling the truth. Ask employees to explain whether they are experiencing age discrimination or intergenerational conflict and encourage them to give specific examples if they have any complaints.

2. Embrace Millennials

By 2025, Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce. As Lindsey Pollak, a multigenerational workplace expert, says in a 2016 TEDx talk: It’s time to support Millennials—not shame them. She recommends focusing on three main areas: coaching/development, flexibility, and transparency. For example, this might include creating a mentoring program, allowing employees to work from home one day a week, and taking the time to explain why the company is working on certain projects (rather than just saying, “Do this by Friday.”)

Another common complaint from Boomers and Gen X’ers is that Millennials don’t want to do certain tasks. One type of employer response is: “Buck up.” But when you respond that way, the Millennial employee may not perform well and may move on, which only creates more work and expense. “If you force people into something that they don’t want, it won’t last,” says Miki Feldman Simon, the founder of IamBackatWork, an organization that helps women return to the workforce.

Thorpe agrees, adding: “Today, if I’m in a job and I’m unhappy, the options to get a new job or start a new business are so readily available that I don’t have to spend thirty years at a company, working my way up. A young person with an entrepreneurial spirit may start a side hustle and follow that because it makes them feel more fulfilled.”

3. Stop Assuming and Ask More Questions

Conflict often arises from a simple misunderstanding. Just ask MaryBeth Hyland, the founder of SparkVision, an organization that helps companies increase employee collaboration. In her last job as a fundraiser, Hyland used LinkedIn to research people before approaching them about making a donation. While, to Hyland, LinkedIn was a useful tool that made her more effective at her job, others who weren’t as familiar with the networking platform assumed that she was simply goofing off at work. Clearing up that confusion made all the difference.

Another source of conflict is the use of earbuds or headphones in the office. It’s a practice that can annoy others in the workplace who may assume that those people aren’t working hard enough. “Maybe they like music,” Haserot says. “But it’s also true that some people have a hard time concentrating in offices that have been designed as big open spaces. So they use headphones to block noise around them.”

On the other hand, younger workers can also be quick to judge. A Gen Z or Millennial employee may judge older employees who want to print things out as environmentally unfriendly. In some situations, however, there may be a perfectly legitimate reason to print out a document (for legal purposes, for example).

The moral: Before jumping to conclusions or talking about people behind their backs, ask questions. Hyland adds: “It’s much easier to complain. It’s much harder, but worth it, to say: ‘I’m frustrated, so I should get curious about that. What is it that I’m not understanding?’”

4. Create Communication Guidelines

There are more ways to communicate than ever before, to certain age groups’ irritation. For example, a Baby Boomer might grumble when she phones a Millennial and receives a text in response. Or a Gen Z worker may roll her eyes when a Traditionalist hits “Reply All” to an email chain when the response is not relevant to her duties.

If you’re a leader in your office, consider developing guidelines. For example, external client interactions should always be put in an email. A phone call, in-person conversation, or Slack is appropriate for time-sensitive decisions. Email should be responded to within 24 to 48 hours. Texting is for personal matters only. It doesn’t matter what the specific guidelines are—just that everyone is aware of them.

Another option is to let managers discuss their preferences with their teams. The point is to provide a framework so that everyone is on the same page.

5. Provide Tech Training  

Pick a few key technologies that are necessary for your team and provide training for people of all ages. This might include how to use PowerPoint, Snapchat, or a video conference app, as well as basic phone and email etiquette.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have cell phones or texting. I had to talk to a friend’s parent before talking to my friend. I had to get through the gatekeeper,” says Hyland. As a result, she learned valuable skills regarding tone and appropriate language choices. But many Millennial and Gen Z employees don’t have those references.

On the other hand, email and texting were not available to Boomers growing up—they may be unaware that a short sentence via email or text may read as abrupt, or that a joke may not be clear without using an emoji.

6. Share Your Professional Successes

Encourage employees to take some time—weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually—to express their professional wins with their teammates. Did you keep a promise you made to your team? Did you increase sales by using Facebook? Don’t assume that everyone knows and don’t be afraid to gently toot your own horn (even if it goes against your nature).

“Interviewees noted that pointing to past accomplishments and showing important results increased trust between members of various generations, thereby leading to conflict resolution,” according to a 2016 study by Saint Vincent College’s Michael Urick, Ph.D., and colleagues.

7. Reconsider Your Review Process

If your company still gives in-person annual performance reviews, ask yourself whether it’s working. Perhaps there’s a different approach that’s more effective. For example, Pollak says in her TEDx talk that some companies are using apps that provide feedback on a more regular basis.

In an article about Millennials published in May 2017, Scott Westfahl, Director of Harvard Law School Executive Education, and co-writer Avery Blank, a lawyer and impact strategist, report on the results of a poll Westfahl conducted with a group of 45 law firm leaders from around the world. They agreed that they would never try a new restaurant without first reading online reviews. Then he asked how many of them had ever written an online review. Only two had. “So who’s writing the reviews?” he asked. “The Millennials you’ve been complaining about. And why do they write reviews? Because in the digital age, they realize that their ability to give direct, timely, open feedback motivates change. Their voices are heard, and the restaurant improves service, or food, or parking or it goes out of business.”

It’s a reminder that young people are more accustomed to frequent digital feedback—thanks to platforms like Instagram—and may be more receptive to criticism when it’s delivered in a non-traditional way.

When we approach intergenerational conflict as a problem worth solving and bring patience, compassion, curiosity, and communication skills to the task, we have a better chance of improving workplace relationships—and perhaps even relationships outside the office, too.