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When Generations Fight: Resolving Workplace Conflict

Picture in your mind a playground with three children fighting over a teeter-totter. The oldest child is fighting to keep the teeter-totter firmly planted on the ground. He has a content grin on his face and he’s plugging his ears. He’s plugging his ears because the youngest child, seated on the other end of the teeter-totter high up in the air, is having a screaming fit because he wants to be the heavy-weight on the teeter-totter.

Picture in your mind a playground with three children fighting over a teeter-totter.

The oldest child is fighting to keep the teeter-totter firmly planted on the ground. He has a content grin on his face and he’s plugging his ears. He’s plugging his ears because the youngest child, seated on the other end of the teeter-totter high up in the air, is having a screaming fit because he wants to  be the heavy-weight on the teeter-totter.

Meanwhile, the middle child is standing by watching the fight unfold and growing increasingly impatient waiting for her turn. Her arms are crossed and she has a pouty look on her face.

The recent recession has only enhanced the impact that demographics will have on the workforce in the foreseeable future.

The Boomers have influenced the workplace for the last 40 years and they are determined to keep it that way. Gen Y is upset because they are used to getting all the attention as the youngest and largest generation, and the Xers are stuck in the middle and can’t get a word (or promotion) in edge-wise.

We can expect that with prolonged retirements, four generations in the workplace (and a fifth generation on the horizon), generational conflict is likely to become a major concern.

The Future of Work Research Consortium recently asked 2,500 executives which issues they believed would be critical in the future. Nearly a quarter of them rated intergenerational conflict as the most pressing concern and most rated it among their top three concerns.

Conflict is no laughing matter. U.S. employees spend about 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. This amounts to $359 billion in paid hours!

So how do you keep your multi-generational team from snarling at one another? Start by playing fair.

Provide access to technologyI recently met with a company that banned texting and the employees were outraged. Tension occurs when corporate communication favors the Boomers. Gen X and Y use social media and texting to access information and stay connected. Many companies have banned these mediums and by doing so have inadvertently favored one generation over another.

Be flexibleSome companies refuse to allow their employees to have flex-time or reserve the benefit for only the most senior-level employees. Gen Y wants to work virtually and Xers want time off to care for their children. As the Boomers age, they will want sabbaticals and part-time opportunities. If generations are to  work together, flexibility has to be a reality for all, not just for some.

Encourage relationship-buildingThe generations have much to teach each other. Whether you are pairing people of different generations up for lunch or incorporating mentoring and job  shadowing programs, cross-generational communication is imperative to team-building and succession planning.

Good business is based on understanding others. The majority of us think the correct way, and the only way, is our way. In business, as well as in personal life,  that is just not true.

To work effectively and efficiently, to increase productivity and quality, recognize the value each generation brings to the table, be open to newideas, and focus on building relationships.

This is the only way we will ever get past our differences and play nice together.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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