Generational Conflict: Handling Employee Age Differences

As older workers from the Boomer Generation begin to retire in large numbers, younger workers are taking their place, and many companies are seeing conflict arise between their new employees and those who are at the end of their careers.

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, Linda Gravett, a human resources consultant and co-author of a guide on how to handle age difference in the workplace, says generational conflict is becoming a big issue for companies because “there are four distinct generations in the workforce now.” According to Gravett, people from different generations are having a hard time coming to terms with the differences age brings to the workplace. She says 58% of workplace conflict can be attributed to generational dissonance.

She also believes the problem becomes amplified when older workers end up as subordinates to their younger counterparts. Boomers can feel they’ve been left behind, despite their substantial years of service, or that their younger superiors lack the know-how to be good bosses.

Yet, a recent survey conducted by Watson Wyatt, a global business-consulting firm, found that a majority of Canadian workers (approximately 56%) across all generations have the same major concern: they don’t trust their bosses. The study also found that employees of all ages generally want the same things in a job: clear and decisive leadership, regular two-way communication with their superiors and an effective rewards system. If leaders ignore these generational commonalities, the authors of the study assert, then they risk losing their effectiveness with every worker in their company.

While it’s clear that generational differences can have an impact on the workplace—different vocabulary, different fashion sense, different workplace methods, etc.—it’s also clear that differences can spring from a number of sources, not the least being idiosyncratic preferences and personalities. You can account for most differences by utilizing the particular strengths of your employees, because most people want to be involved in the greater goals of their organization. In fact, many studies have shown that greater profit is tied to greater employee participation in decision making.

Try these methods to resolve any age-related differences that will likely pop up soon (if they haven’t already):

Empower your workforce. All modern businesses need to do this. Leaders and managers should be communicators, interpreters and coordinators when it comes to the organization’s mission. They assess the overarching goals and objectives of the company, decide how best to communicate and achieve those ends, and enlist the participation and feedback of their associates.

Companies are at their best when all workers feel they are part of the decision making process, with every individual actively owning a piece of the outcome. Older individuals, with their potentially extensive experience, might bring a wide body of knowledge and expertise to the table. Similarly, younger individuals—whether managers or subordinates—can offer a fresh outlook. Every single person brings something different to the job. By valuing and embracing these various contributions, you can avoid many of the problems that arise from generational difference—or any difference, for that matter.

Foster a workplace of openness. Whether between manager and subordinate, subordinate and subordinate or even manager and manager, you need to be prepared to handle inevitable conflict. In an empowered workplace, everyone is involved in the success of the company, so everyone should be participating in strategic conversations and carefully considering what their colleagues contribute.

When workers of any stripe start exhibiting apathy, frustration, hostility or any number of other unproductive behaviors, workplace leaders need to step in and make things right. They can help resolve conflict by being ever observant, and when they notice a problem, they should do their best to help their colleagues work through it by facilitating discussion with open-ended questions that allow those involved to get to the heart of the issue.

Discourage prejudice. Too often workplace conflict arises because people filter their interactions through previous experiences. So, for instance, if Boomers have had many prior negative moments with younger coworkers, they might be inclined, perhaps involuntarily, to view all youthful associates in a less than favorable light and thus not give these individuals the respect they deserve as separate entities.

Everyone in an organization must be willing to take each situation on its own merits. When your diverse employees interact, they should evaluate each situation based on what they actually see and hear, not on past situations. If you can get most of your people to take this step in good faith, then company leaders will be able to use the other two approaches to bridge most interpersonal gaps.

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