How to Mitigate Fears, Resolve Conflict, and Build Trust in a Multi-Generational Workplace



Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change
— Wayne Dyer

Our article outlines some of the generational trends, challenges and potential solutions for managing multiple generations in the workplace.

Let’s commence with the fact that adulthood is comprised of various stages and generations with each generation bringing its own perspectives and traits. At present we have baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and now Gen Z making up four generations in the workforce with a few traditionalists, also known as the Silent Generation, still hanging around as well.

Managing people is difficult enough without the added issues that arise across generations and we believe that failure to grasp and execute a multi-generational leadership strategy can result in generational conflict, decreased productivity, and high employee turnover.

By now, unless you have been asleep for the past decade, you have witnessed how millennials have not only become the largest segment of the workforce and our population, but also how they have created new businesses, technologies, lifestyles and, in many ways, a fresh new face on our world. Full of purpose, millennials have made their mark.

Gone are traditional work hours of 9 to 5, cubicles and corner offices, suits with ties and dressy shoes. In their place is the 21st century workplace where the Silent Generation (born before 1945), baby boomers (born between 1945-1965), and many Gen Xers (born between 1965- 1980) are wondering how to feel comfortable in an open office space, why many of the desk chairs are often empty, and how every day became casual Friday.

Close on the heels of millennials (born between 1981-1996) is Gen Z (born between 1996- 2012), who are now entering the workforce. Like millennials, Gen Zs possess skills their older counterparts do not. In fact, a five-year old today (part of a new generation born after 2012 that is currently called Generation Alpha) may well be better skilled than their parents at using smartphones, tablets, and even “smart” televisions.

In addition to possessing prowess in technologies beyond that of the elder generations, the younger generations have experience in industries that did not even exist when baby boomers and many Gen Xers entered the workplace. For example, while plenty of Gen Xers have experience in the gaming industry, few would have foreseen that video games would become spectator sports. In fact, a whole new industry has arisen—and it’s a big one. A recent study found that the majority of “young gamers” worldwide now spend more time watching other people play video games online than they spend watching traditional sports on television.

Times of course are always changing, and it is normal for the differences in style, taste, philosophy and technology to cause a bit of friction between generations. However, millennials are set to comprise 75% of the global workforce by 2025 and Gen Z are now entering the workforce and on track to eventually surpass millennials in population size within the workforce. At the same time, Gen Xers and baby boomers are faced with increased longevity and a desire to hang on to senior management positions. These pressures are exacerbating issues, fears and conflicts within the workforce like never before.

In days of old, management would simply have declared the rules and expected employees to comply. However, with a dirth of substitute labor available and with millennials less willing to play by the rules, change is effectively being forced on the older generations. In the process, management’s power can be eroded, and both camps can end up dismissing and disrespecting the other’s points of view.

Unless leadership takes a proactive approach to managing across generations, wasted time, lost productivity, and failure to retain employees will have a significant impact on the bottom line.

Thus, we wrote our article to help leaders understand the steps they can take to address any inter-generational conflict they are having or may potentially experience in their organizations, so they can begin to foster workplaces in which everyone feels valued, integrated, empowered and able to give the best of themselves to their co-workers and to their jobs.

This process begins with understanding the psyche or mindset of the various generations. More specifically, it helps to understand the fears, desires, values, and beliefs of each constituency in your workplace.

The Great Divide: The First Decade of the 21st Century

We have found that more important than birth, date or age in shaping the disparate mindsets in the contemporary workplace, is the impact of the disruptive first decade of the 21st century on an individual’s way of thinking.

Coming off decades of relative prosperity and stability at the end of the 20th century, the beginning of the 2000’s has been a time of great disruption. Beginning with the bursting of the tech bubble followed by 9/11, multiple wars, school shootings, the constant threat of terrorism, and culminating with the Great Recession, this time period rocked the very foundation of our world. People who had done everything right—punched the clock diligently, worked overtime, devoted their entire careers to their employers—lost their jobs, lost their houses, and lost their retirement income.

Baby boomers and Gen Xers were already in the workforce by the time the first decade of the 21st century occurred. However, for millennials and Gen Zs, they watched their parents suffer. This decade of destruction and uncertainty marks a shift or watershed in the psyche of many Americans in the workforce today.

Boomers and Gen X: A Shared Sensibility

While individuals do not fit neatly into stereotypical categories, there are some common attributes that mark the generations.

As stated above, baby boomers and Gen Xers were ensconced in their 9-5 jobs by the time the world fell apart in the early 21st century. They had joined a work culture with traditional values like loyalty, hierarchy, seniority, stewardship and retirement plans. Baby boomers made climbing the corporate ladder an art form by staying at the same company for decades. In fact, more than 40% of them stayed with their employer for over 20 years and 18% stayed for more than 30 years. When Gen Xers entered the work force they were expected to work hard, obey the rules, pay their dues and wait for a promotion, just as the boomers did. And they did—they towed the company line.

While the management style of the boomer generation looks traditional now, it is actually less formal than that of the Silent Generation (aka traditionalists) who preceded them. Where traditionalists placed a strong emphasis on rules, led with a command and control style, and preferred face to face interaction and formal communications, many baby boomers focused more on obtaining personal fulfillment from work. Thus, when Gen X came along and wanted even more balance between work and family, many boomers could get behind that as well. The Gen X mentality was not so different from the boomer mindset that it felt like a revolution as the millennial effect does now.

In many ways boomers and Gen X share a similar sensibility with regards to technology, as well. Gen Xers were already established in the traditional workplace when the 21st century dawned with its new technologies and new industries. They can actually remember a workplace without the internet, without cell phones, and without social media. They have had to learn (albeit easier and quicker compared to boomers) to adapt to the new skills and industries created by technology, whereas millennials grew up on them.

Millennials: A Clashing Culture

As previously stated, the vastly different approach to work and lifestyle of the younger generations might be explained by watching their parents do everything right and then seeing it all fall apart. What’s the point of wasting your youth tied to a desk only to have your retirement dreams go up in smoke? However, you explain it, the differences between millennials and their elders are striking.

Whereas boomers and Gen Xers were willing to stick it out at a company for the long haul, millennials are quick to look elsewhere when they are unhappy or do not feel challenged enough by their employer. In fact, staying at a job for more than three years is becoming rare.

While boomers and Gen Xers prefer a hierarchical structure and a clearly defined path, millennials prefer a flatter workplace structure. They take a more entrepreneurial approach to work where skills and performance are rewarded over tenure or age and desire a social, friendly work environment. Where boomers and Gen Xers are used to formal reviews tied to promotion and compensation, millennials like constant, direct, more informal feedback.

Where boomers and Gen Xers excelled at self-development, millennials expect their companies to keep them stimulated with learning and development opportunities. Millennials also refer collaboration, expect access to those in positions of influence, and do not want to be out of the information loop. They prefer flexibility and project-based work.

Unlike their elder generations, millennials grew up in a digitally-connected world. Where the older generations relax by disconnecting, millennials and Gen Z too relax by consuming digital content. While boomers and Gen Xers had to come to an office to get work done, technology facilitates working from anywhere, which suits millennials just fine.

The Generation Z Mindset

With all of these differences between millennials and elder leadership, Gen Z is now entering the workforce with an entirely different set of expectations, skills, and philosophies on life and work.

Gen Zs were kids during the tumultuous first decade of the 21st century. They are a scarred generation—cautious and hardened by the economic and social turbulence we have all witnessed. Like the Silent Generation, who were scarred by the Great Depression and WW2, Gen Zs are known to be more anxious, reserved, pragmatic and conservative than their slightly older counterparts—the millennials.

Studies have shown that Gen Z teenagers have postponed risk taking rites of passage like having sex, obtaining driving licenses, and drinking compared to millennials. Instead of risk they seek security. The need for security is evidenced by the fact that Gen Zs seek assurances that they will get health insurance and other benefits from employers, even if they are still living with their parents and do not yet need their own coverage.

Where millennials have focused on having a quality lifestyle even without a lot of money, Gen Zs prefer and aspire to be well off. A UCLA study in 2012 found that 82% of college freshmen wanted to be well off, the highest recorded level since 1966. Furthermore, unlike millennials, Gen Zs are willing to work overtime to accumulate that money.

According to a recent Wall Street Article, Gen s are also likely to be more competitive than millennials, who are known for getting “participation trophies.” Gen Zs seek individual recognition, whereas millennials are happy to team up and work together. Only time will tell whether Gen Z’s aversion to risk makes them less likely to desire self-employment than older generations or their desire to be entrepreneurial has the opposite impact.

Their desire for economic security has led Gen Z to take on less college debt by choosing less expensive schools, lower status colleges, or even skipping college altogether and going straight to work. On the other hand, Gen Zs seem not to care about bargains as much as millennials. While millennials look for ways to have or experience things for less money, Gen Zs seem to be more willing to work for the money to have the things they desire.

More evidence of the scarred psyche of Gen Z is the fact that they have higher levels of anxiety and depression than earlier generations. Some experts believe that this is due to the fact that Gen Z are constantly connected to a steady stream of social media on their smartphones, which in turn is a contributing factor to their mental health issues.

Finally, Gen Z are the first generation of “digital natives”. They grew up with iPhones (released in 2007), watch You Tube rather than TV, and fawn over digital influencers more than traditional movie or television stars. Some say the “snapchat” and “vine” influence has given them shorter attention spans and made them better multi-taskers. They use twitter to find jobs, use a smartphone to communicate, and have large social networks, which they can use to promote or tear down a company or brand that does not treat them well.

Digging Deeper: Fears, Desires, Values, Beliefs

While the above information gives valuable context, it is helpful to try to synthesize it further by exploring four specific factors: fears, desires, values and beliefs.

Bearing in mind that individuals do not fit neatly into stereotypes and sweeping generalizations, there are some commonalities to consider and explore when thinking about each generation.

A. Baby boomers fears, desires, values, and beliefs

Many boomers find themselves living longer and for many not having enough income or savings to retire. Often baby boomers want to keep their leadership roles but find themselves out of touch with the new sensibilities and skillsets in the workplace. They fear becoming less relevant, lacking necessary skills, fear change as most humans do or face losing a key part of their identity in retirement. Boomers of course desire financial security, value loyalty and hard work, and for many believe they must keep working and thus have a strong urge to hold onto their power or position. Some might also believe they are too old or lack the energy to have to learn new tricks.

We are not saying all boomers share these thoughts and feelings, but we do think it is worth investigating because many baby boomers are likely to express concerns and fears as described above.

B. Gen Xers fears, desires, values, and beliefs

Gen Xers—sometimes called the lost generation—find themselves sandwiched between baby boomers, who don’t want to retire, and millennials, who are ready to take charge. If boomers hang around till their late 60’s or even their 70’s before stepping down, Gen Xers could be in their 50’s or 60’s before they can reach the top of the proverbial ladder—with millennials and Gen Z ready to push them aside.

Gen Xers desire financial security, value loyalty and hard work, and might believe they lack the skills and experience needed to thrive in the new world order. They might also feel young enough to adapt. It is possible that they do not feel so different from their younger counterparts that they cannot learn new tricks and skills—after all, it looks like they too will remain in the workforce for years to come. After all, retirement is not commonly pushed off until the 70’s or even 80’s, since social security can no longer be counted on and more and more people are living to 100.

Again, you cannot know what motivates or drives someone’s behavior until you give them a safe forum in which to express their thoughts, fears and desires.

C. Millennials fears, desires, values, and beliefs

From our perspective (we are a boomer and a Gen Xer), millennials watched the older generations mess things up, get divorced, and be let down by their employers and their government. They do not seem to trust their older counterparts to take care of them or the world, and so they have developed an entirely different set of values and beliefs. Many millennials seem to wonder if financial security is even a realistic dream and thus appear determined to create a lifestyle that does not require a lot of money.

Millennials value having a good lifestyle, making an impact, taking care of the environment, teamwork and even collectivism. In fact, a 2018 study found that the majority of millennials would prefer to live in socialist (44%) or even communist (7%) countries over capitalist ones (42%). This can, however, be attributed in part to the fact that only 33% of millennials could correctly identify the definition of socialism and only 51% could correctly identify the definition of capitalism, which is an interesting commentary on our education system. It seems millennials are more certain that the US system of government is flawed, and US political leadership has no acceptable solution.

Be that as it may, millennials believe they deserve to have a voice at the leadership table and feel capable of being leaders themselves. They might, in fact, fear that if the older generations get to keep their power, the world will be worse off for it. Maybe they are right.

Finally, many millennials grew up with “helicopter” parents in an environment when parents believed they should smooth all of life’s bumps in the road for their kids and prevent them from experiencing any adversity. This has led to a noticeable lack of resilience in this generation, which is the subject of much discussion among college administrators.7 For many millennials, their fear of failure can be debilitating.

D. Gen Z fears, desires, values, and beliefs

With regard to resilience, the jury is still out on whether or not Gen Zs will fare better than millennials, as Gen Z has a noticeable fear of failure as well. However, there is a concerted effort to talk about and teach resilience to the younger generation, and there is a noticeable backlash against “helicopter” parents and participation trophies for Gen Zs.

There seems to be a reaction against collectivism as well, with a majority of Gen Z not only preferring capitalism and with more Gen Zs being able to properly identify the definitions of socialism and capitalism than millennials.

Gen Zs do not appear to agree with the extreme progressivism of millennials and are instead more conservative in their thinking about work and life. Gen Zs really want financial security. They are more willing to work for big, stable companies that will give them benefits and provide a path to financial security. Will this prove to make them more loyal than their older counterparts? It is too soon to tell, but if companies listen to their needs, they might be rewarded with loyalty from Gen Z.

Finally, Gen Zs are the most racially diverse generation in American history and seem to have a more global outlook than previous generations. How this plays out in the workplace remains to be seen but seems to be worth exploring and anticipating how to adapt.

Creating a Strategy for Inter-Generational Harmony in the Workplace

It is easy to see how the differing fears, desires, values and beliefs among the generations can erode trust, inhibit collaboration, and foster conflict.

Leaders, who may be boomers or Gen Xers, must decide whether to cater to the needs of the new majority and change the way the workplace functions or maintain the old order and alienate the younger generations—at a time when labor is hard to find.

The question for management becomes, “Given the inherently different apprehensions, aspirations, preferences and perspectives of each generation, how can harmony be created, collaboration accomplished, and trust built while conflicts and fears are managed?”

We believe the way to create an effective strategy for inter-generational harmony in the workplace is a three-step process:

  1. Investigate

  2. Validate

  3. Leverage Strengths

Let’s explore these three steps one at a time.

Step One: Investigate

To truly comprehend the mindset of the constituents in your workplace, there is no substitute for open, constructively conversation with an attitude of genuine curiosity. This is why the first step in devising a multi-generational strategy is to investigate—do your due diligence to explore and understand the unique apprehensions, aspirations, perspectives, and preferences of each generation in your workplace. This means bringing people together and creating safe forums where they can be heard.

Specifically, if you can understand the fears, desires, values and beliefs that are at play and/or in conflict, you can find ways to navigate and manage them. We have highlighted some examples of these factors for each generation, but the constellation of issues and challenges will show up differently in each workplace.

The power to transform a work culture comes in the conversations. Conversations that allow people to address their fears and align their values, desires and beliefs to those of the organization and their co-workers.

Good conversations will reveal that even where there are great differences of opinion, there will also be many shared characteristics. Regardless of age or generation, for example, great companies coalesce around shared values. Everyone wants to be:

  • Respected

  • Listened to

  • Inspired

  • Educated on the “big picture”

  • Given a voice at the table

  • Empowered to work in their strengths

  • Mentored with positive and constructive feedback

When you take the time to discuss what matters to people, you find common ground and build good will to address the points of conflict.

Step Two: Validate

It is not enough to simply understand the unique fears, desires, values and beliefs of your employees. You must take it a step further and validate the various perspectives. Look for the strengths of each generation’s way of thinking and being in the workplace and in the world. There are good things to be had from each generation, and the best solutions will include strategies and strengths from each.

Step Three: Leverage Strengths

Having a “one age” dimension and perspective in the office will harm chances of success. As stated above, the best path forward will include the best each generation has to offer and will include a continuous feedback loop to make sure everyone continues to feel engaged, understood and validated.

Additional Areas to be Aware of When Creating a Contemporary Workplace

A. Gen Z: The Consumer Block

Gen Z is pushing the millennial generation aside as the most sought after by marketers. Globally, Gen Z will be around 2.6 billion people by 2012 with an annual buying power of $44 billion. Unlike millennials, they are more likely to buy in brick and mortar stores than ecommerce orientated millennials.

Combined, millennials and Gen Z represent 50% of the total media audience, and that number is increasing. In short, Gen Z eyeballs, brains and wallets are the center of the marketing universe.

B. Digital Influencers

Over the past couple of decades, the leveraging of the internet for buying and selling has been evolving. Companies wanting to reach the younger generations must consider digital influencers now. Digital influencer marketing campaigns are now mainstream with Royal Caribbean, Awesomeness TV, Clinique, Sephora, and Birchbox all using this type of campaign to connect to Gen Z.

C. Recruitment:

When Gen Zs apply for employment positions, employers have to respond because Gen Z has the power to influence peers. Reviews and ratings on websites like Glassdoor mean one negative voice can do serious damage to the reputation of an organization. Gen Z’s often prefer to interview electronically with videos. Some experts believe face-to-face interactions are more difficult with Gen Z, as they have grown up communicating with text and facetime. Consequently, talent acquisition strategies have to be adjusted and adapted to Gen Z.

D. Corporate/Employer Branding

Corporate branding has significantly risen in relevance. Millennials will not do business with a company with a bad image or with one they had a poor experience. Nor will they work for such a company. In fact, being neutral is not good enough. Millennials want to work for companies that “do good.” Corporate social responsibility is on the mind of millennials and Gen Z. Your corporate brand is your employment brand and the most important asset you possess. Glassdoor has become a key portal for corporate branding and a make-or-break recruitment tool.

E. Employee Experience

There is an increased emphasis on the “employee experience.” With millennials dominating the workforce, policies and perks have become important for recruitment and retention. Organizations who provide a better employee experience win. It will be interesting to see if this changes when Gen Z is more fully integrated into the workforce. However, it is always difficult to take perks away once they’ve been established.

F. Educational Requirements

Recently some employers have eased requirements for degrees in new hires as more and more Gen Zs skip college (and college debt) and go right to work. Employers may consider requiring certain skills more than academic degrees. It will be interesting to see how this affects academia, but for now, employers should know that alternatives to traditional college degrees are on the rise.

G. Feedback

The structure and cadence of employee feedback is transforming. The younger generations want continuous feedback. This requires moving away from infrequent touch points like annual reviews and adopting weekly feedback using tools like TINT pulse, Waggl, Culture AMP and Glint. Leadership would be wise to consider implementing coaching and mentorship programs we well.

H. Learning and Development

Both millennials and Gen Z want their employers to provide ample learning and development. Considering the lack of resilience of the younger generations, it would be wise to consider resilience training as part of learning and development.

Emotional intelligence is another skillset that should be included in a good learning and development program, as these skills are critical for leaders. In fact, emotional intelligence is the single biggest predictor of career success—NOT education, skillset, experience, or IQ. Furthermore, research shows “direct ties between emotional intelligence and measurable business results.”

Training and development within the workplace are being reworked by many organizations to replicate YouTube style videos that appeal to Gen Z. This means they can be consumed on smartphones in very short periods of time.

I. Communication

One final thing to consider is the preference for texting and using communication tools like Slack, which many in the younger generations prefer to face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and even emails. These newer modes of communication have their own shorthand, which can make older generations feel out of touch and less relevant. However, it might be worth it to allow the younger generations to mentor their elders on these types of tools and technologies, while those in older generations can mentor the younger on plenty of other important business issues and skills.

Concluding thoughts

Every generation has its own set of strengths, fears, desires, needs, values and beliefs. Open communication and a willingness to address all of these aspects of the workforce will allow leadership to create a strategy where every employee can give their best to their co-workers and to their companies.

One thing that will be key for all employees—young and old—is a growth mindset. Believe in your ability to learn and adapt and grow. There is much to be gained from being open and curious.

It takes courage to face your fears, but the rewards are definitely worth it.

If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.
— Dale Carnegie