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Strategy Session: Making peace within a multi-generational workplace

Inter-generational conflict doesn’t need to dominate your office atmosphere. Here’s how to manage the battleground

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at paddleink@gmail.com, stalked via @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at CalgaryBusinessWriter.com.

Mar 1, 2013

by Marzena Czarnecka

Your office door flies open and there they are. Your stellar VP sales, turning 60 this year but showing no sign of slowing down. Your brilliant IT lead, barely 25 and fresh out of school, but the only one on the team who understands how all your operating systems and databases really work. And your just-turned-40 CFO, who’s so brilliant she really ought to be your successor – if it weren’t for all those 50-something VPs who’ve been in the queue longer. Great people, all of them, and critical to the success of your company. But as they storm into your office, you cringe. Because the fighting and the name-calling and the complaining is about to begin. Thank goodness your 75-year-old father’s not doing the rounds today because he’d jump right in there, as bad as any of them.

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Illustration The Bathwater

Welcome to the intergenerational workplace, as perfect a recipe for conflict and dysfunction as you can order, courtesy of first world demographics. In most workplaces right now, you’ve got four generations under one roof. And unless you manage the conflict, it’s hell.

This is who you have, in brief:

  • One or two traditionalists, the silverbacks, born between 1922 and 1945. There aren’t a lot of them and most of them are on the way out, but they’re the ones whose values and conventions have shaped the current workplace.
  • A whole whack of Baby Boomers, the demographic bulge created by the combination of disposable income, free time and active imaginations between 1946 and 1964. They’ve dominated the scene since they entered it and they’re not retiring as fast as it was once thought they would, so they still have a lock on most of the positions of power.
  • A representative share of Generation Xers, the sandwich generation born between 1965 and 1980. They’re moving into leadership positions en masse now, replacing retiring baby boomers and leapfrogging over the backs of the youngest ones.
  • An ever-increasing slice of Generation Y, the 1981 to 2000 babies. There are nearly as many of them as there are of the baby boomers, and they’re going to inherit and dominate the workplace.

(The Millennialists – Internet natives, every single one of them, born after 2000 – are coming. But we won’t worry about them just yet. Some are still in diapers, and most are still in school and living in their parents’ houses.)

“Here’s the thing: this conflict, this lack of communication? It’s not going to go away with time. Honest.”

Here are the problems with the four generations: they harbour resentments against one another; they often don’t understand each other. “They have very different value systems and they have different ways of communicating,” says Paula Goebel, a corporate trainer and the principal of Goebel Communications Group. Given those starting points, clashes are inevitable, and they often start right at the job interview. “ ‘I’m not sure who’s interviewing whom here,’ is a common complaint from baby boomer managers,” says Giselle Kovary, the managing partner of n-gen People Performance Inc. She notes that Gen-Ys often take the first step on their career with some very direct and strong opinions (which they are not afraid to share) about their career, the organization and the universe in general. The baby boomers interviewing them? Most of the time, they were just happy to get a job, and they resent the uppity young punk’s unearned confidence. Kovary identifies three main friction points between the generations. The first is around an employee’s relationship to the organization and the workplace. Traditionalists and boomers are loyal to the organization; Gen-Xers and Gen-Ys are loyal to their leader or their “pack.” The second trouble spot is their relationship with authority. The younger generations are unimpressed with authority for authority’s sake. Want their respect? They don’t care if you’re twice their age. Earn it.

Finally, the biggest clash comes about as a result of different attitudes towards work habits. You know what’s coming. You’ve done it yourself. If you’re a boomer or a Gen- Xer, you’ve probably complained about the work ethic of lazy young people. And if you’re a member of Gen-Y, you’ve inevitably rolled your eyes at the old dude who comes into the office on the weekend. Because he needs to use the stuff in his (insert another eye roll here) filing cabinet. Doesn’t he have an iPhone?

Dasa Chadwick, principal with Leverage Point Learning, says one of her goals when she works with leaders struggling with intergenerational conflict is to drive home the fact that “all the generations working right now are really hard workers.” The problem is that, just as with their communication styles, their work styles are different. “The older generation focuses on face time, time put in,” Chadwick says. Butts in seats; body in office. Boss goes home at 7 p.m.? You stay there until 7:09. “The younger generation focuses on output,” Chadwick says. Their philosophy is, simply, “ ‘If I happen to get it all done in three or four hours, then don’t bother me about what I do with the rest of my day.”

That’s a hard thing to take from a “subordinate” for the average boomer, and even the older Gen-Xer. “One of our oil and gas clients was recently telling us how they were hiring Gen-Y, and telling them their hours were eight to four, and the reaction from the new employees was, ‘What, every day?’ ” Kovary says. The manager was appalled. But for the new blood, the eight-to-four, Monday-to-Friday workweek is a negotiable concept rather than a fixed one. “Fundamentally, they think, why would we work like that?”

Kovary says. “They’d like to come into work for a few hours, then run some errands, then come back – or maybe not. ‘I have my iPad, my laptop – it doesn’t really matter where I am.’ ” So long as the work gets done.

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Appalled as well? Get over it. Find a way to value it, understand it and get all the generations in your organization to value each other and use each other’s strengths to your organization’s advantage. You need to do this, and not just because that makes for a more efficient and therefore more profitable organization. It’s about survival, baby: if you don’t get your people to understand each other, they are going to fail miserably at knowledge transfer. Your 60-year-old VP has to mentor your 38-year-old rising star. And she has to bring up that 25-year-old smart aleck who tweets while he talks to you.

You can’t mentor people you don’t respect, and you can’t respect people whose work ethic, communication styles and overall values you willfully misunderstand.

Here’s the thing: this conflict, this lack of communication? It’s not going to go away with time. Honest. “One of the things I bump into most often when I talk with baby boomers and even Gen-Xers is that they ask, ‘When will the younger folks figure it out and start acting the way we do?’ ” says Chadwick. Surprise – they won’t. “When you look at the demographics, the numbers tell you that as the boomers get out and the rest of Gen-Y gets in, the Gen-Ys will reshape the workplace.” Gen-Xers had to adapt to the boomers, because there were so few Gen-Xers compared to the boomer bulge. There is no such pressure on the Ys. In a few more years, the workplace will be theirs. Completely.

Which means that if your preferred strategy for dealing with intergenerational conflict is to not hire Gen-Y – and, as Goebel notes, there are companies that “openly say to me we do not hire the Gen-Ys” – you’re pretty much pooched. Imagine a company in the 1960s that had decided not to hire boomers because they were too difficult to deal with. Where would that company be – never mind now, but by the 1980s? Dead.

Fortunately, there is a solution, and it’s not rocket science. If the problem starts with communication, that’s where the cure lies. And it starts – lucky you – at the top, with you understanding that you’re leading and managing a diverse group of people. They don’t all think like you, communicate like you, or, occasionally, understand the thing that you’re saying to them even though it seems blindingly obvious to you.

Goebel points out that top leaders are usually outstanding communicators in a variety of media. “They communicate very well in the written form, face-to-face, one-on-one, in groups,” she says. “Brilliant communicators use all the different channels.” They know when to text and when to call – and when to approach someone in their office. A leader of a multi-generational workplace has to be a master of all the forms of communication. That’s step one.

Step two? Model and actively teach your different generations how to value and understand each other. “All four generations are investors in your business,” says Kovary. You don’t call investors names or complain about their rigidity or poor work ethic, do you?

(You do? That’ll be a topic for another column.)

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