Offices have always been made up of multiple generations: the “old timers” at the top, marshalling their experience to guide the company with a steady hand, and the “young hot shots”, fresh from college, eager, and with a lot to prove. Thanks to the financial crisis, however, older employees are staying at work longer, and more and more young adults are graduating from college and filling workplaces. In many offices, three or even four generations are now working side by side.
As with any culturally diverse groups, conflict is bound to arise in a multigeneration workforce. For many managers, these conflicts spell headaches. For resourceful leaders, however, these conflicts can be the jumping off point for a more resourceful, adaptable, and powerful workforce. Turning conflict into strength, and difference into unity, is the hallmark of successful companies. The conflicts found in multigenerational workforces are no different. Here are the five most common ones and how to resolve them.
Communication Style and Methods
Older workers are more formal, prefer longer written messages or in-person conversations, like to give and receive frequent updates and news, and tend to prefer one-on-one communication. Younger workers, on the other hand, are almost completely opposite: informal, short, updates only on milestones or where needed, one-to-many communication. How do you make these distinct styles work together?
Successful resolution requires the ability to build a culture that respects each employees unique style. If you, as a leader, can do that, you can then pass along that respect to other members of your team. Encourage all employees to try to understand the preferences of the person they are communicating with, and stick to those as often as possible. It will lead to less strife, and a happier and more understanding workforce.
One of the most difficult things to overcome in a multi-generational workplace is the stereotypes associated with each generation. Older workers are often seen as greedy, set in their ways, and autocratic. Younger workers are seen as lazy, entitled, and lacking in respect. The truth is that the different generations are often far more similar than different.
Overcoming generational stereotypes requires a strict policy banning any kind of generational discrimination and harassment. More than that, however, successfully bridging this gap is done best by pointing out the various strengths that each generation and employee brings to the table, and how they add up to make the company greater than the sum of its parts. Make sure employees understand that rather than focusing on stereotypes, the are expected to focus on the strength that their coworkers have, and make it very clear that negative attitudes based on stereotypes will not be tolerated.
Older workers were often brought up to respect the company above all else, to pride themselves on working harder than anyone else. Younger generations, on the other hand, were often raised with two working parents, and prioritize work-life balance and living for themselves rather than their jobs. The workers in the middle just want to be left alone to do their jobs. How generations work is often a big cause of friction, and leads to many of the stereotypes that we spoke about above.
Many companies find themselves in deep trouble with this one by creating and enforcing a single unified work culture. This can either lead to overly favoring older workers with rigid schedules, unbending workspace assignments, etc. or it can go too far towards younger workers and alienate the older ones, with chaotic open floor plans, no schedules or timetables, and a laissez faire attitude. The trick is to identify where each one works better, and tailor work expectations to the projects at hand. Give employees the flexibility to tailor their work style…to an extent. This can be done by allowing telecommuting once or twice a week, or by making it clear that you evaluate employees strictly by work performed, and not hours spent in the office.
Being a successful manager means knowing what your employees expect of you. In days past, with only one or two generations in the office, the expectations were fairly uniform. In modern 3 or 4 generation workforces, there is a much bigger breadth of expectations.
To understand what your employees and team members expect of you, communication is key. It is no longer enough to assume that you understand how the people under you want you to act. Instead, have frequent formal conversations with employees (especially new ones) about what they expect from you. Do they want you to be very hands on or very hands off? Do they need coaching or can they jump right in? Do they need in-person meetings or do they prefer phone calls or emails? Take their expectations into consideration, and try to find a happy compromise between how things are done and how they want things to be done. Tailoring your approach to individuals rather than the group will allow everyone to function more effectively and efficiently, and cut down on conflict.
Teams or solitary employees? Collaboration or competition? Top-down or bottom-up? These are all conflicts that can develop in offices where a multigenerational workforce brings competing expectations to their desks every morning. Putting an older employee who has worked by himself in a corner office for a decade in the same room as a younger employee who is used to collectivism and a large team might create friction, but it can also be an opportunity.
The best solution to eliminate these conflicts is to regularly put employees into situations they aren’t entirely comfortable in. It’s important, as we said earlier, to let employees work in their own style. It’s also important to force them outside themselves occasionally. Have a good balance of individual and team time, and take care to explain your rationale for each. Mixing things up on a regular basis will give your employees time to mingle with their coworkers, and allow them to understand each others’ working styles. This understanding will forge stronger bonds, and unite the multi-generational workforce into a stronger unit.
The Final Puzzle Piece
Ultimately, there is one piece of advice for dealing with multigenerational workforces. The most important key is to forge strong bonds with each individual employee, regardless of generation. Using your interpersonal relationship skills to build personal connections with employees as individuals will overcome any differences in generational attitudes, and will function as a model for how your employees should look at and treat their co-workers.