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ATD Blog

Conflict and Generations in the Workplace


Wed Mar 06 2013


By now everyone should be aware of the fact that the workplace is populated by different generational cohorts—specifically Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. The youngest cohort, the Millennials (individuals born between 1982 and 2005, based on the research I use), started entering the workforce maybe 10 years ago, and like any new generation, they threw the older generations for a loop.

There were lots of articles about how immature this generation was, or how “entitled” they were, or how they cried if you gave them negative feedback (a byproduct, apparently, of their “everyone gets a trophy” youth). A similar thing happened to Generation X back in the late 1980s (what’s up with these cynical slackers?!), and the Baby Boomers in the 1960s (radical long-hairs!), and in every case, these negative responses to the younger generation were overreactions. We tend to take the real differences among the generations, and make the worst of them. Over time, we pull back to a more rational response to the differences that is less negative. So why the initial overreaction?


In short, because we are bad at conflict. Generations are different. It’s inevitable. As the theory explains, the different cohorts come of age during different time periods (thus different social, economic, and cultural contexts), and as a result, they end up with noticeably different values. The values then clash in the way we do work, and we end up getting angry and blaming, rather than just working it out. When faced with the conflict, we too often choose to escalate and assert our position, rather than seek to understand and find common ground.

For example, the Baby Boomer generation tends to place high value the group or team (or cause, or movement), and Generation X, a much smaller generation that had been left to their own devices as they grew up, came into the workplace with an emphasis on independence and work-life balance. This prompted a lot of conflict, with Boomers grumbling about these new employees not being “team players,” and Xers complaining about the incessant “micromanaging.” Of course, now those Xers are managing the Millennials (who grew up in a very different, child-focused, and social-Internet-enabled world) and new conflicts emerge, with Millennials expecting more interaction with higher levels of the hierarchy and more substantive work content earlier in their career.

So how do we deal with generational conflict?

First, pay more attention to the generational aspect of the conflict. The more we can understand the big-picture patterns around generational differences, the more effective our conflict conversations can be. Learning about other generations can actually increase your curiosity. This is important, because you will increase your chances of being heard and understood if you show that you understand their perspective. This will reduce the tension in the conversation (as opposed to those conversations that focus on terms like “slacker,” “micromanager,” or “entitled”).

Second, ignore the generational aspect of the conflict. Now, I realize that is a complete contradiction of my last paragraph, but it’s an important point. Generational differences are by definition, big picture. We’re talking about differences among groups of people that number in the tens of millions. But those two managers in conflict in your company are simply two individuals. Yes, one is a Boomer and the other is an Xer, but don’t fall victim to stereotyping. As individuals, one or both of them might be completely opposite from their generational stereotype. If you get too engrossed in the generational differences, you might end up missing opportunities to resolve the actual conflict at hand.


Instead, focus on the fundamentals of conflict resolution: uncovering assumptions, focusing feedback on the behavior and its impact (rather than on subjective judgment), identifying the underlying interests behind the conflicting positions, and simply asking better questions. When you employ these tactics, you’ll be more successful in resolving the conflict, regardless of the generational dynamics at play (or not at play!).

Understanding generational differences is important. If you ignore this issue, you’ll likely get burned at some point. But knowledge of these differences doesn’t give you all the answers, either. It simply builds your capacity to have better conversations. So when conflict emerges in your organization, think about those generational issues without letting yourself get too attached, and focus on the fundamentals of conflict resolution. You’ll end up with a multigenerational workforce that is as productive as it is diverse.

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