14 Aug Geezers, grungers, gen-Xers and geeks – a look at workplace generational conflict
Let me admit right off that the title of this article is deliberately misleading. It feeds into the popular misconception that the workplace is populated by a bunch of generational tribes engaged in rivalries and conflicts with each other. Unquestionably there are real differences, misunderstandings and tensions among workers born in different eras – but the assertion of great division and conflict is overblown in my view.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a structured look at generational relationships in the workplace while leading a workshop with about 70 knowledge workers from different companies in the same industry. The group was made up of people ranging in ages from 21 to over 60. While this sample is too tiny to form an all-encompassing picture of how generations are getting along in the workplace, it nonetheless provides some clear and hopefully valuable perspectives on intergenerational relationships at work.
A Generational Phony War?
Drawing on questions from a survey of generational issues in the workplace conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management, I asked the workshop attendees prior to the session to fill out a brief online questionnaire asking them how frequently they’ve observed each of 10 different types of intergenerational interactions in the workplace. Half of the statements described positive interactions and half described negative ones.
Surprise, surprise – the overall picture emerging from the data was consistently positive – workers of every generation in the group saw the positive aspects of intergenerational relationships far more often than the negative ones. In fact, the top 5 most frequently observed aspects of intergenerational working relationships were all positive:
• Workers of different generations working effectively together (61% frequently observed; 37% sometimes observed)
• Workers from different generations learning from each other (43% frequently observed; 46% sometimes observed)
• Perspectives of workers from two or more different generations balancing one another (24% frequently observed; 52% sometimes observed)
• Better quality of work due to variety of generation perspectives (21% frequently observed; 69% sometimes observed)
• Intergenerational mentoring – formal and informal (21% frequently observed; 51% sometimes observed)
These responses indicate that workers of different generations are working together extremely well – taking advantage of their different perspectives and skills to get the job done more effectively and learn from each other in the process.
Not Everything is Hunky-Dory
While the positives significantly outweighed the negatives, there was nonetheless some evidence of tensions and frictions among the generations. For example:
• Conflicts regarding acceptable work hours between workers of different generations (19% frequently observed; 37% sometimes observed)
• Communications breakdowns between workers of different generations (15% frequently observed; 52% sometimes observed)
• Employees stating that co-workers from other generations are over- or under-reliant on technology (12% frequently observed; 39%sometimes observed)
• Employees taking co-workers from different generations less seriously (10% frequently observed; 34% sometimes observed)
• Employees feeling that co-workers from other generations do not respect them (9% frequently observed; 30% sometimes observed.
Work values, communications styles and attitudes toward technology seem to be the major points of intergenerational friction. But they don’t appear to be getting in the way of how intergenerational teams get along and perform together.
Younger Workers See Intergenerational Differences More Acutely
When we analyzed these responses by age, a slightly different picture emerged. We broke down the data by three age groups: Under 35, 35-44 and 45 and older. We consistently found that younger workers saw positives and negatives in the intergenerational picture to a far greater extent than their counterparts from other generations.
In several cases, the younger workers saw a much rosier picture of the workplace. For example, 56% of workers under 35 frequently observed intergenerational mentoring versus only 21% of workers 35-44 and 12% of workers 45 and older. Forty-four percent of workers under 35 frequently observed the perspectives of workers from two or more generations balancing one another. By contrast, 24% of workers 45 and older and 17% of workers 35-44 observed this frequently.
And 67% of the youngest workers frequently observed colleagues from different generations learning from one another while 46% of 35-44 year olds and 36% of the 45 or older group observed this frequently.
On the negative side, there were a couple stark contrasts between generations as well. For example, 44% of workers under 35 frequently observed employees stating that co-workers from other generations were over-/under- reliant on technology. By comparison, only 9% of workers 45 and older and 4% of workers 35-44 observed this frequently.
Twenty-two percent of workers under 35 years old frequently observed employees taking co-workers of different generations less seriously while 12% of workers 35-44 years old and 6% 45 and older did so frequently.
And 22% of workers under 35 frequently observed employees feeling that co-workers of different generations don’t respect them. Only 9% of workers 45 and older and 4% of those 35-44 observed this frequently.
Don’t Let Friction Turn to Conflict
So while the workers of different generations seem to be working well together there are nonetheless very real tensions among them. Managers should make sure they are building on positive intergenerational differences while taking steps to neutralize the negatives. Be aware of and sensitive to any differences that may exist in the perspectives and experiences of the respective generations in your workforce. Our survey showed that the younger the worker, the more sensitive they were to generational differences both positive and negative. So make sure you know and are publicizing the positive aspects of intergenerational relationships in your workplace and rooting out the negative ones before they breed resentment that impacts engagement and performance.
Don’t be afraid to do an honest assessment of your workplace. Is there a dominant view at work in your organization that is shaped by one generation of workers? Is that dominant generational view insensitive toward the perspectives of individuals from different generations? Our survey showed that the more experienced the workers, the less aware they were of negative interactions between the generations in the workplace. This could be a sign of complacent and entrenched attitudes and working practices. Embracing the perspectives and styles of all the generations is the best way to ensure your organization’s culture gets refreshed and continues to grow.
How are the different generations getting along where you work? What positive and negative interactions between them have you observed most frequently? We’d love to hear from you. Please e-mail Tony DiRomualdo at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experiences and perspectives.