Are Inter-generational Conflicts Hurting Your Business?
Baffled by Gen Y? Can’t handle your Boomer manager? You’re not alone!

by Bill Templeman

A few months ago I was asked to go into a mid-sized technology firm and deliver a conference presentation on Intergenerational Communication. When I started asking questions to find out exactly what they meant and what they wanted from me, a familiar pattern emerged: Employees of different generations, working together but not understanding each other and assuming the worst about each other’s intentions.

The business impact of this lack of trust and poor communication was that the firm’s external clients were starting to experience delays in product delivery and poor customer service. Some senior managers were defaulting to very authoritarian leadership styles with a predictable outcome: A steady trickle of young, promising employees were quitting, taking their knowledge and skill sets elsewhere.

Suspicion and mistrust between the generations have been facts of life at work at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. So why are these issues such a big deal today? What makes the current situation absolutely unprecedented in history is the explosive development of new technology combined with the rapid expansion of the globalized economy with a highly unusual demographic pattern in the workforce. Simply the presence of 4 generations in the workplace at the same time creates tension. The Veterans, born before 1946, are still around, although in diminishing numbers as they retire; many of the Boomers, born between ’46 and ’64, are now in senior leadership roles. Generation X, born between ’65 and ’79 are taking over from the Boomers while Generation Y, born since 1980, is beginning to move into the workforce in large numbers. Demographers disagree about exactly which years represent the specific generations and their labels, but the consensus seems to be that prevailing generational characteristics shift roughly every 20 years.

In the U.S., with more than 75 million members, Generation Y is nearly as large as the baby boom and at least 50 percent larger than Generation X. This should be good news for recruiters if only Gen Y fit the mould of their Boomers parents and managers. But now recruitment and retention are huge issues for businesses, governments and service organizations across Canada and the U.S.

Interesting stuff, but I knew my audience would not respond well to a lecture on demography and economics. They had a real-time business problem that would not be improved by a dry, academic presentation on theories and trends.

My client’s employees needed to understand the basic differences in how the generations see the world, so I put together a slide presentation that covered the origins of the differences between each generation (different historical context and extremely different child-rearing norms), the impact of these differences on lifestyle and most importantly on workstyle. This presentation concluded with a module on how to communicate with each generation and how to manage Gen Y.

But I knew I couldn’t get away with subjecting my audience two hours of PowerPoint. They needed much more than my research and my imagined -and certainly limited- expertise. So I asked for two volunteers from each of the generations to join a panel at the front of the room for a discussion. I worked this panel through a number of discussion questions such as “What don’t you understand about other generations who work with you and how they communicate?”, “What do other generations need to understand about your generation?” and “If you could fix only two things about other generations and how they communicate, what would those two things be?”

After an initial, nervous exchange about all the little things like multi-tasking (fiction or reality), clothing (is casual the only way to dress?), fashion (what will our clients think of your body piercing and tattoos?), technology (why can’t the Boomers just suck it up and get up to speed?), the discussion turned serious. Some of the biggest points of contention were the perceived inability of Gen Y to follow orders and their need for continuous feedback.

Out of this discussion the group came up with the following points to remember when dealing with each of the generations:

Then there was the discussion about failure.

Failure, the Boomers maintained, was a fact of life so get used to it. Generations prior to Gen Y were not sheltered from failure. When I was in school, — I am a very early Boomer– it was still possible to fail a course or even fail a year. While this early experience of failure may have temporarily damaged our self-esteem, overall my generation learned not only what it felt like to fall down, but how to pull ourselves back up on our skates, dust ourselves off and get back in the game. Many Gen Y’s have much higher levels of self-esteem than my cohort had at the same age, but they can be devastated by their first experience of failure at work or elsewhere in life, unmediated by protective parents or indulgent teachers. One of the gifts of failure is the development of resilience.

Then there was a poignant discussion around the use of power and authority in leadership. Several Boomer managers had to admit that they were using authoritarian leadership styles in ways that discouraged precisely the gifts of collaboration and questioning of assumptions that Gen Y’s brought to the firm. The Gen Y’s said that in today’s job market they are better off leaving an authoritarian employer than staying and being humiliated.

At the end of the discussion I invited the audience to respond to a few of the questions put to the panel by writing their answers on Post-It Notes without their names then sticking these notes up on the wall. Apart from one snarling remark (“Send Gen Y off to Boot Camp”), the overwhelming tone of answers was of tolerance and a need to accept people of all ages for who they are and appreciate what they can bring to their work.

The job of today’s managers, business owners and entrepreneurs is to encourage and guide Gen Y’s and protect them from leaders who may not appreciate their unique qualities. Let’s hope that everyone can learn to make the most of this new generation’s distinctive talents.


© Bill Templeman, Ascent Associates
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