December 8, 2016

Generational Conflict Management in the Workplace


Feeling like a dinosaur in the workplace? So does your 25-year-old millennial coworker.

No matter your age or industry, younger generations entering the workforce can feel like a threat. As technology advances faster and faster, companies are hungry for employees who are instant masters of the latest trends. Just when millennials became comfortable in their place as the perfect young, savvy recruits, Gen. Z came knocking.

There’s no getting around it: The incoming workforce is marketable. Gen. Z newbies have certain skills that Gen. X-ers, boomers, and millennials don’t, and their entrance into the adult world will undoubtedly change workplace dynamics.

Does that mean that anyone who grew up pre-Disney Channel is at risk of unemployment? Of course not. While Gen. Z has much to offer, it also has much to learn. We have up to five different generations in the workplace today, all with different interests, motivations, and perspectives – and that’s a good thing.

In any collaborative work environment, a unified, supportive team attitude is key. When your employees aren’t communicating properly, they’re not as productive – and that messes with your bottom line. Unfortunately, generational divides can naturally cause simple misunderstandings or full-on conflicts in the workplace.

But integrating employees of different generations into one cohesive team doesn’t have to be a headache. Employing effective conflict management techniques can resolve issues, restore order, and rally your team to perform at its peak.

First, Overcome Generational Stereotypes

You’ve heard the saying about what happens when you assume. Stereotypes, while often not malicious, have the power to become real problems, and it’s easy to stereotype people whom you see every day but never talk to.

Why not organize a team-building experience that’s fun, creative, and engaging for all types of employees? Team challenges like escape rooms are great go-to options for instant bonding. Throw an office viewing party for the next NFL game, or organize an outing to a minor league hockey match. Volunteer as a team for a local charity. Take an office poll to find out who’d be into laser tag, a barbecue, or trivia night. Work together to build a castle out of marshmallows and spaghetti. Do whatever it takes to help everyone to get to know each other on a personal level.

handsOne single day probably won’t do the trick, so be persistent. Whenever appropriate, encourage employees of different ages to teach each other new skills or work together on projects. Friendships – or, at the very least, mutual respect – will build over time.

Keep People Virtually Accountable

With virtual work and flex time gaining more and more momentum with younger generations, productivity could take another hit due to employee conflict. Without accountability measures in place, some tasks can fall through the cracks and start some major finger-pointing.

Every team member of my nonprofit, 1,000 Dreams Fund, works in a different state. I totally understand the struggle to keep everyone on the same page, but here’s what worked for me: We have a required 24-hour turnaround for emails, which has been incredibly successful. To communicate in real time, we also have weekly phone calls, during which the agenda is really tight and the meeting is led by one specific person. It doesn’t matter how they’re doing the work, but it’s important for everyone to know it’s getting done.

If an employee does have gripes about a coworker’s office presence (or, more accurately, lack thereof), listen to their concerns. There may be legitimacy to their complaints, especially if work really isn’t being completed in a timely manner. Everyone should be doing their fair share. In some cases, it may be necessary to put tighter processes in place for accountability.

Leverage Gen. Z’s Tech Skills

Ah, the iPhone: a multifaceted device for light-speed work productivity – or simply the home of endless Twitter scrolling? For all their understanding of technology, some entry-level employees struggle to stay focused with glowing screens before them. We all know that sites like Facebook and YouTube can be the ultimate time-suck, draining hours of productivity. As an employer, it’s on you to create the right rules for cellphone use and other technologies in the workplace.

Set some ground rules that make technology a positive part of your work environment and a tool that joins your employees together rather than divides. While your younger employees may be more likely to spend hours on Instagram, older employees certainly aren’t immune to time-wasting activities on the computer or elsewhere.

Some companies institute phoneless meetings, while others actually encourage active social media use from employees. And let’s not forget Gen. Z’s technological proficiency: Because they’ve been around technology most of their lives, they likely know creative ways to streamline processes. There are ways to allow Gen. Z employees to flex those skills without making older generations feel obsolete.

Christie Garton is an award-winning social entrepreneur, author, and creator of the 1,000 Dreams Fund, a social enterprise that empowers young women in the U.S. through scholarships and life-changing advice. 

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Christie Garton is an award-winning social entrepreneur, author, and creator of the 1,000 Dreams Fund (, a social enterprise that empowers young women in the U.S. through scholarships and life-changing advice. Garton is the author of the best-selling college guidebook for women, "U Chic: College Girls' Real Advice for Your First Year (& Beyond!)" (4th Edition, Sourcebooks 2015) and coauthor of "Marketing to Millennials: Reach the Largest and Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever" (AMACOM 2013). Garton has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, and U.S.News & World Report. She holds a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.