Sunday, May 31, 2015

How to resolve generational tension at work

Currently, with the Baby Boomer generation beginning to reach retirement age and the Millennial generation transitioning from college to work (or work to college), relationship dynamics in the workplace are in a bit of flux. While it's true that there is always an older generation retiring and always an upcoming generation entering, so many changes have occurred over the past fifty years - roughly the time since the Boomers were the entry generation - that there is more potential for conflict in terms of work ethics, social habits, and technological capability, as well as the ever dangerous politics, religion, and values. Let's break down these big three.

Work ethics - As a generation, Baby Boomers have the greatest loyalty to corporations, which from a management standpoint makes them more ideal workers and less likely to leave. They also believe that hard work and ambition leads to success and have been willing to put in the hours to achieve that. In direct contrast, Generation Xers are far more cynical about corporations and authority and are much more likely to invest time in things they see as directly benefiting themselves. Millennials, raised in a rapidly changing environment with an emphasis on praise, have shorter attention spans and will leave a job that they do not find rewarding or doesn't give them enough positive feedback or rewards - or at least that is how older generations criticize them, as less loyal and more demanding. Gen Xers see Boomers as workaholics and company men who got better breaks in the college and employment markets and don't want to retire and vacate the best positions to younger employees. Boomers tend to see Generation Xers as unmotivated and lazy, wanting promotions but unwilling to sacrifice personal or family life to get them.

Social habits - Of the three generations, the Boomers are least comfortable with change. Generations X and Y were raised within a rapidly diversifying society and don't mind working with people of differing races, ethnicities, religions, or sexual identifications. Younger workers are also more familiar with a rapidly changing employment landscape and are more likely to be open to alternative work arrangements, whether that be part-time work, shared time, online commuting, or consulting. Baby Boomers often prefer face-to-face interaction and training opportunities, while Gen Xers and Millennials are comfortable with online training options, email, and texting. Older workers sometimes find an over-reliance on gadgetry to be annoying and may wish to limit it within the office setting.

Technological capability - The younger the worker, the more likely that they've been exposed to rapidly changing technology and are comfortable both with what exists now and what may exist in the future. While plenty of flexible and tech savvy older people exist, Generations X and Y are better with computers and technology, and they more seamlessly apply old tech skills to new tech applications.

Obviously, the best combination of people for any organization is one that contains many complementary strengths and skill sets and people who can easily get along with each other. A multi-generational group can be a great asset for any organization. Unfortunately, since the economy collapsed in 2009 and work became both scarce and not as well paid, people of all generations have been duking it out for what is there - and blaming each other for what isn't.

Anyone in charge of managing a combination of Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials should remember that people are individuals before they are members of their generations. Not all Millennials are plugged in 24 hours a day, and not all Boomers are putting in the last days until they can get their 30-year company pins. Patterns are a useful jumping off point, but they are not everything.

If your company workplace is experiencing generational tension, try to arrange some opportunities for communication. This may be outings or social events, it could be a part of regularly scheduled meetings too. Sometimes getting to know each other outside of work expectations is the best way to break down boundaries and get people to know and empathize with each other. This could be accomplished as simply as forming a baseball team or a bowling league or by creating a company vegetable or herb garden.

Remember, the more your employees see and like each other as people, the less likely they will be to mentally assign each other to generational groups and stereotype. This holds true for any other type of group tension as well which is why fostering both communication and a sense of community is critical for building a cooperative workforce in your company or organization.