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The impact of intergenerational conflict at work

Recently, several colleagues and I noted that conflict in the workplace can emerge as a result of perceptions of differences related to what members of various generations care about, how they engage in work, and how they define self and others. We also noted several ways in which these conflicts might be resolved including achieving results, managing image in the workplace, and focusing on self in challenging interactions. But some readers may wonder as to the importance of positive intergenerational actions in the workplace. They may ask: why is it important to improve intergenerational conflict at work?

Intergenerational communication is often apparent in popular culture. In a recent article, I reviewed several movies that highlighted intergenerational mentorship. For example, Han Solo mentors a younger Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Similarly (and perhaps more realistically), Anne Hathway’s and Robert DeNiro’s characters engage in highly effective mutual intergenerational mentorship after overcoming challenging interactions upon initially meeting in the film, The Intern.

Yet, not all intergenerational interactions are positive. Nor are they occurring in fiction. In a recent survey, business leaders report a lack of preparation in preparing younger generations for future leadership roles, in part, because appropriate mentorship is not occurring. Furthermore, talent development initiatives in workplaces appear to be ineffective in preparing younger workers for future roles. This is especially problematic given that, as older generations leave the workplace, there will be a substantial knowledge, skill, and experience gap as younger generations inherent their roles and responsibilities. The major logical outcome is that organizations will not be able to perform as efficiently and effectively. Furthermore, they will not be able to maintain the same level of service that customers have come to expect.

“In a recent survey, business leaders report a lack of preparation in preparing younger generations for future leadership roles, in part, because appropriate mentorship is not occurring.”

In our research, though, we found that some older generation workers remove themselves from challenging interactions with younger colleagues – a privilege that younger employees may not possess as they are more likely to be junior-level workers that rely on more experienced colleagues for advice, assistance, and workplace assignments. Older workers that reported engaging in walking away from challenging interactions often did so because of negative perceptions that they had of younger workers, often in spite of never having proof of their less-than-positive impressions.

By walking away, multigenerational workforces will continue to experience a breakdown in communication, a lack of mentorship, and reduced opportunities for intergenerational knowledge transfer. So, what are some ways to improve intergenerational interactions so that organizations will not see decreased functionality as younger employees inherent more decision making and leadership roles? Below are three suggestions.

  • Forget stereotypes. It’s perhaps not surprising that many people hold onto their stereotypes when they engage in workplace interactions and generational-based stereotypes are no exceptions. Yet, when people use stereotypes to guide how they interact with others, they take out the individuality inherent in each person. In essence, they don’t learn what’s unique about the other person in order to have a truly positive interaction with them. By focusing on people as individuals, workplaces are able to become much more collaborative and organizations can leverage each person’s knowledge, skills, and abilities.
  • Provide realistic training. Intergenerational workplace interactions can be challenging if employees don’t understand solid techniques for interacting or the benefits of positive interactions. Furthermore, interactions may not occur at all if they view individuals of other generations to be completely unalike from themselves. Proper training, however, can solve many of these issues. Training can provide soft skills to improve communication and knowledge of benefits of positives interaction. Training can also help to breakdown stereotypes that may be inaccurate.
  • Engage in proper conflict management activities. As multiple generations work together, each with differing perceptions of others, conflict is likely to emerge. Organizations must, therefore, help to facilitate proper conflict management techniques. Organizations may also consider using other academically supported methods including Rothman’s ARIA conflict engagement model. This particular model is useful to engage identity-based conflict (in which conflict is caused by how an in-group defines self within the context of other out-groups). Because generational tensions can emerge on identity lines as we note in our research, this is a potentially useful approach.

So, have you ever experienced intergenerational conflict? What was helpful in improving your situation? I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Featured image credit: Nice But Not Special: The Intern Review by BagoGames. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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