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Generational Leadership

Coping with Generational Differences in the Workplace

Coping with Generational Differences in the Workplace

The modern workplace is an intense melting pot, with co-workers of all ages sharing space, facilities and objectives. Consequently, we have a new breeding ground for generational and cultural conflict – and all too often, the absence of traditional age-driven hierarchies can add fuel to the fire.

For managers looking to prevent or diffuse these situations, the challenge is helping workers to put their generational differences aside. And the answer lies in understanding the typical behaviours of each generation.

As an example, let’s assume four workers of different generations are brought together to deliver a project. Each team member will have their own approach to collaboration, and their own response to any conflict that might ensue.

A Traditionalist (born before 1945) will expect each person to make a distinct and specialist contribution. They’ll look for a rigid working structure, with fixed, individual objectives – and they won’t appreciate an overly collaborative approach.

A Boomer (born 1945 – 73) is likely to frustrate the Traditionalist by fully promoting collaboration, democratically inviting everyone’s feedback regardless of individual expertise. Their goal is to make sure each team member takes a holistic view of the project and understands the wider impact of individual tasks.

To the task-orientated Traditionalist, this will feel like a time-consuming and unnecessary distraction.

This conflict can be eased by the presence of a team member from Generation X (born 1964 – 82). This member will share the Traditionalist’s desire for tangible goals and outcomes, as well as their determination to focus on individual tasks. But given sufficient reason, they’ll also embrace collaboration.

So in their eyes, Boomers and Traditionalists both hold the keys to the kingdom, provided that the best approach is applied in a given context.

The final team member is a Millennial (born since 1983) – also known as Generation Y. This member is an eager, sociable animal, hungry to collaborate and learn, and likely to promote the efficiencies of new technology.

To the Traditionalist, the Millennial represents the worst excesses of the Boomer: an avid collaborator who wastes time that could be spent more profitably. But while the Boomer only frustrates through lengthy consultation, the Millennial goes one step further – either wandering off task or pushing “unnecessary” technical solutions.

This fragile relationship between the Millennial and Traditionalist is by far the most explosive dynamic in the team. Even though the Millennial will respect the Traditionalist’s experience, their radically different approaches can lead to clashes from the outset – leaving the Boomer and Gen Xer to restore productivity.

So is there a peaceful solution?

We can’t expect generational differences to fade into the background. But we can find a way to direct the team towards a common goal. And in many respects, the Gen Xer will be best placed to make this happen.

A typical Gen Xer will have the maturity to command the respect of older and younger colleagues alike. They’ll also have experience of dealing with people of all generations, both in and out of work situations. They’ll have grown up with the rigid cultures of Traditionalists, matured professionally under the stewardship of Boomers, and progressed into management roles where they’ve trained and nurtured Millennials.

Conveniently, the Gen X mindset is also the most pragmatic, sharing values with each generation. So while there is no hard and fast rule, the Gen Xer should be in a strong position to bridge the divide that runs through any multi-generational team.

Of course, success or failure will ultimately depend on the skills of the member who becomes the team’s ‘centre peg’. They’ll need a strong sense of empathy and a clear understanding of what motivates their colleagues as individuals – above and beyond the traits of one generation or another.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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