Stop Making Conflict at Work a Generational Issue


Scroll through any social media channel and you’ll likely see content about the differences between generations. Whether it’s a meme about “snowflake” Millennials or “triggered” Boomers, a post making fun of “angry” GenX or a comment about Generation Z always having their phones in their hands, it’s becoming all too common to point out our differences.

This focus is extending to the workplace as well. For the first time in U.S. history, there are five generations working side by side. Inevitably, such diversity is going to expose a variety leadership and work styles, which can lead to conflict.

Corporations tend to divide groups by age and then look at generational differences as the foundational reason for this conflict. There are countless studies extolling how to manage across generations. I’ve even had the question come up in my own training sessions.

The more I study generations in the workplace, the more I believe that we’ve taken the wrong approach to this topic. Chip Conley, Airbnb executive, said in his TED Talk,  “The more I’ve seen and learned about our respective generations, the more I realize that we often don’t trust each other enough to actually share our respective wisdom…I believe, looking at the modern workplace, that the trade agreement of our time is opening up these intergenerational pipelines of wisdom so that we can all learn from each other.”

I agree with Conley, and I believe that when we change our approach to conflict at work, we can build stronger teams and yield better results. Building trust begins with two simple steps: finding our similarities and valuing our differences.

Find Similarities

We are all more alike than we realize, and when we focus on our similarities rather than our differences, we can begin to forge meaningful connections. A key place to start is in identifying workers’ core values. According to HR expert Patrick Lesnick, all workers, regardless of age, share the following seven values:

  1. Feeling respected.
  2. Being listened to.
  3. Having opportunities for mentoring.
  4. Understanding the big picture.
  5. Receiving effective communication.
  6. Receiving positive feedback.
  7. Experiencing an exchange of ideas.

While all workers share these values, they may approach them in differing ways. Understanding these foundational motivators can help to unite teams regardless of generations.

Another way to bridge differences is through personality assessments such as DiSC training, which can help workers identify their similarities.“DiSC transcends differences in age and serves as a roadmap to connect people across generations. Through this roadmap, organizations can foster work environments that enable all five generations to teach and learn from each other.”

Value Differences

Once teams begin to focus on what makes them alike, it’s easier for them to value and appreciate their differences. Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes: age, behavior style, ethnicity, and gender, just to name a few. When we value what each group can bring to the workplace, we build trust and empower teams to become more successful.

A common pitfall among age groups is to judge one another rather than consider differing opinions. I call these automatic thoughts. For example, a Boomer may assume a Millennial who questions a process is bristling against authority, when in reality the younger worker may see a better way of executing that process. However, when we begin to value healthy conflict, we can encourage teams to work through those thoughts and move from judging differences to valuing them.

Lead Your Team to Success in 2020

It’s time for leaders to put away the memes and assumptions about generational differences and focus on building collaboration between workers and teams. This is an extraordinary time in the history of the U.S. workforce – let’s make the most of it and learn from one another!


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