Four Steps to Avoiding Generational Conflict in the Workplace


You do not have to reach far to see or feel the stress that people are under today. Overall, Americans are just cranky and for good reason. I try to avoid the news as much as possible (due to its negativity). However, as I sat on my couch clicking channels one evening, I couldn’t ignore this CBS News headline: Workplace woes: Incivility up, morale down.

Here are a few key points from their reporting:

  • People are focused on their own problems and aren’t going out of their way to do something good for someone else
  • People who have jobs feel they have to work really hard to keep them
  • People are disturbed by co-workers that are slacking off or appear to be slacking off
  • Stress is often taken out on coworkers rather than going to upper management because people are afraid of losing their jobs

Today’s stressed economy is creating a lot of pressure in the workplace for both new and experienced workers. Tenured employees have seen their friends lose jobs, and are afraid if they don’t do whatever they can to keep theirs, they will be next.  New employees are savvy enough to realize that the last hired are often the first fired. Overall, people are working longer hours and putting up with more workplace nonsense than they might typically accept in a strong and stable economy.  Add on a layer of generational conflict in the workplace and we have the “perfect storm”.

Last August, Jeannie Trudel, the author of a recent workplace incivility study conducted by Wesleyan University-Marion , shared her findings at the American Psychological Association‘s 119th Annual Convention held in Washington, D.C. Here are a few tidbits from her presentation:

Incivility can be anything from excluding people from conversations to leaving the coffee pot empty after taking the last cup. The results of the study revealed; 65% blame leadership for workplace incivility, 59% blame employees and 46% blame the economy. One event is not a big deal but over time the cumulative effect can even lead people to start looking for a new job! It is a growing and prevalent problem.

Whether it’s a large corporate environment or managing an apartment property with a smaller number of onsite staff, how can you avoid “storm damage”? Take charge!

As an employer, you have to take charge in order to maintain a civil workplace. In the CBS video referenced above, generational workplace expert Jason Dorsey reminds us that a company’s culture is a direct reflection of its leadership. Stepping up and modeling the behavior expected from those within the organization is critical. Here are four steps to help you avoid “storm damage” in your workplace.

Step 1: Get Clear on Corporate Culture

What does corporate culture look like in your workplace? How are professionalism and respect defined?

Fitting into the already molded culture of a company can prove to be a challenge for any new employee. For those members of Generation Y it can be an even greater challenge. Remember, this is the generation that has been taught to believe they can do anything, go anywhere and speak their opinion at any time. Don’t assume that they will read the new hire orientation book or that they will pick up on the “unwritten rules” that have been followed since the inception of your company. Generation Y is innovative, technologically connected, well educated and thoughtful, but their values may be very different from their Baby Boomer and Gen X co-workers. Here is a general example that probably occurs daily in the workplace:

Mary (Generation Y) finished her work for the day, shut down her computer and headed home. Even though Mary was scheduled to leave work at 6 p.m., and there were no major projects or deadlines looming, her boss (Baby Boomer) was not happy that Mary left at 6 p.m. The real problem was that her boss valued long hours on the job, while Mary, valued life balance.

In a nutshell, Generation Y wants to work, but they do not want work to be their life.

Avoid managing according to your value system or some “unwritten rule” that has been passed down through your company leadership over the years. Instead, define your culture and manage according to the employee’s value system.

Step 2: Invite Diversity to the Conference Table

Different generations, different departments, different titles, and let them share their opinions to get buy in.

It is okay to have differences—but people need to know how to manage them. Allowing employees to engage in frequent discussions regarding their experiences and viewpoints in a safe atmosphere is healthy. When considering a change to policies, or practices consider the diversity of the team, how to meet their needs as a diverse group and how to maximize the potential of all employees.

Letting go of “our way is the best way” and moving to a more sensitive perspective of “let’s take the best of a variety of ways” is not always easy. Embracing others’ thoughts and ideas can positively impact the bottom line. It also shows them that their input is important to those in decision-making positions.

Diversity issues can affect performance, motivation and interactions with others. Ignoring diversity can potentially lead to increased conflict, loss of productivity, and the inability to retain valuable employees.

Step 3: Model the Behavior You Want to See

Research suggests that leaders influence good and bad conduct through modeling processes. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the “walkie-walkie” matches the “talkie-talkie”  In the book, Managing Business Ethics: Straight Talk About How To Do It Right, co-authors Linda Treviño and Katherine Nelson examine how managers and organizations influence ethical decision-making and behavior:

  • When leaders develop relationships that are based on admiration and trust, their subordinates are more likely to reciprocate with positive behavior
  • Employees can learn a lesson in ethics by observing leaders who stand up for doing what is right, especially if the leaders are successful in doing so
  • The role and influence of a leader can be particularly effective because they make decisions about the accountability and rewards that are imposed on employees

Modeling respect as well as understanding from the top down can have a positive impact on overall employee morale.

Step 4: Take All Employee Complaints Seriously

People spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, talking about, and even dreaming about work these days. Although we would like to believe that these thoughts are of a positive nature that is not always the case. Negative thinking and conversations can take its toll on employees and overall morale. Listening to employees is really important because if you address their complaints, they know you’re listening and you’re serious about maintaining a safe, respectful and hostile free workplace. This is particularly important to Generation Y. In a previous blog article, “Four Generations at Work,” we discussed the importance of ongoing communication and feedback from supervisors. Taking this time to check-in with employees can help you gauge the mood of your team. This time spent can prove to be invaluable!

So, what is the mood in your workplace? Are you fostering and nourishing success? Have you experienced or witnessed incivility in the workplace? We want to hear your thoughts!

At the end of the day, we need all generations to work together to create efficient, productive companies that will thrive in any economy—strong or stressed. Being clear on the company culture, inviting diversity to the table, modeling positive behavior and taking all employee complaints seriously can help avoid potential pitfalls later.