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Article No.: 18-8, August 1, 2018

Article Title:  Minimizing Conflict Across Generations

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, CEQC

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This is a true scenario that happened recently in one of my client organizations: 

Susan, a 35-year-old Vice President, stormed into the Human Resource Director’s office after a difficult meeting with an older direct report.   Susan has been in her executive position for just six months and she has virtually no problems providing – and receiving – feedback from direct reports her own age.  There’s one person, though – William – who is unsalvageable and should be fired, she believes.  William, a 58-year-old Sales Director, appears to Susan to be extremely needy.  He wants a weekly update meeting with her.  She doesn’t have time.  He doesn’t want to try new approaches to his tried and true sales model, nor does he accept any offers to join him in sales calls to try out a different routine.  When Susan offers what she views as straightforward, constructive criticism, William sulks for days.  She doesn’t have time to coddle him, so she’s going to tell the HR Director that he must go, and the sooner the better.

Dr. Gravett photoDepending on which side of the fence you’re on in your own organization in terms of age and position, you’re probably siding with one person or the other in this scenario.  Conflict around work ethic and work methods are abundant in today’s workplace, from small nonprofits to Fortune 500 corporations.  We don’t, however, have to accept this as the norm.
I’d like to share five steps to ensure you can provide constructive, effective feedback that will maximize productivity and minimize conflict, regardless of the age of the person for whom you’re providing the feedback.  This approach is called the FUSION Model:

Fusion Graphic
  • Focus on the issue at hand and key points related to that issue.
  • Understand the other’s perspective and point of view.
  • Be specific about what you think or want. 
  • Be intentional about your expectations and how they support the organization. 
  • Be open to options for handling disagreement. 
  • No “hot button” language such as “you always do this.”

First, I’ll share results from interviews I’ve conducted with employees across generations.  I discovered that Radio Babies (born between 1930 – 1945) often avoid confronting their supervisors or those they perceive to be “in authority.”  Even though they may strongly disagree with their supervisor’s approach towards the work, they aren’t as likely as members of other generations to speak out about their concerns.  They simmer and seethe instead and may consciously or unconsciously sabotage projects as a way of “getting even”.
I found Baby Boomers (born between 1946 – 1964) are very concerned with resolving conflict through consensus building.  Rather than directly tackle issues individually, often the Boomers we interviewed expressed a desire to work through misunderstandings and disagreements in a team setting and move towards the good of the team.  Unfortunately, this approach sometimes diffuses individual accountability.
The Gen Xers (born between 1965 – 1976) tended to be very straightforward in expressing their point of view and had very little difficulty in telling the truth as they see it when providing feedback of any type.  Many of the Xers indicated a distaste for “whitewashing” an issue and prefer to “hit someone between the eyes” with a problem or concern.  This does not always result in a productive, tension-free workplace.
I also talked with Gen Yers (born between 1977 – 1991), who often confessed to an inability to cope with conflict in any form and said that they want coaching on dealing with coworkers and customers who express dissatisfaction with them or their work.  I found many in this generation to be highly sensitive to any type of criticism and even crippled by inaction and confusion when faced with open disagreement.
Given this information as a foundation, let’s move into a discussion about using the FUSION model to handle potential conflict with different age groups. 
Radio Babies are more willing to confront issues directly if the expectation for candor is established at the very beginning of a supervisor – direct report relationship.  When a person moves into a leadership role, I recommend that he or she conducts an open meeting with direct reports to establish expectations for getting the work accomplished; communicating questions and concerns; measuring success; and providing constructive feedback.  Guide the discussion so that it includes an opportunity for direct reports to bring up barriers to meeting expectations and resources they will require to ensure success.  If this is done in an open forum, all direct reports hear the same story at the same time, reducing the potential for misinterpretation.  During open forums, remember to:

  • Focus on a few key points and priorities.
  • Make an effort to understand their perspectives, issues, and expectations.
  • Be specific and concrete about what you want. 
  • Be intentional about the questions you ask to ensure there’s a quality dialogue.
  • Show that you’re open to change and options about accomplishing the work.
  • Don’t let “hot button” language like “you always” and “you never” creep into the dialogue.

If you have Baby Boomers on your staff, you may need to make an extra effort to encourage problem solving and handling conflict independently when it’s appropriate.  Boomers grew up in a time when they were one of many . . . at home, at church, at school or military service, and in the workplace.  They became accustomed to dealing with problems as a group so may need extra encouragement to handle issues independently.
I suggest that you provide Boomers with an opportunity to be reflective through self-evaluation, both during the annual review process and as an ongoing process.  We like self-evaluation questions such as:

  • Why is our organization a better place for your having worked here? 
  • What do you need from your supervisor to help you contribute more to the organization? 
  • What skills, knowledge, and abilities do you need to develop to keep you challenged and motivated in your work?

I certainly don’t promote discouraging Boomers from including team members in their decisions and assignments; however, I do believe an occasional laser-like focus on them as individuals and their concerns and issues will be necessary to ensure understanding and minimize miscommunication.
If you’re in a disagreement with a Gen Xer, you’re more likely to find it necessary to park your ego at the door and be willing to receive direct and sometimes brutal honesty.  (The bright side of that is you’ll be expected to give as good as you get.)  Gen Xers in particular will expect their supervisor or coworkers not to “beat around the bush” but rather to focus in on the issue or problem at hand, sooner than later.  They will be more than happy to express their point of view and expect that, regardless of your position, experience, or credentials you will be willing to listen.  Gen Xers told us in the interviews we conducted that they appreciate hearing concrete and clear expectations and then be provided with the opportunity to develop optional approaches to get the work accomplished.  Saying something like “we’ve always done it this way” is guaranteed to deepen an argument; it won’t help you make your point.
The complaint I hear from Gen Yers more than any other is this:  older people always want to yell at us.  I’ve probed to find out if “yelling” means actually raising one’s voice.  It does not.  It means forcefully disagreeing with them.  This behavior confuses and perplexes many Gen Yers, and they often ask for coaching around receiving criticism.  I often coach Gen Yers to:

  • Focus on the issue rather than take the criticism as a personal affront.
  • Understand that older people are sharing their perspective based on years of experience and expertise.  They’re not disagreeing just to be mean.
  • Be specific about your confusion or need for clarification; it’s okay to speak up.
  • Intentionally promote a discussion; don’t shut down just because the boss doesn’t “adore” you and your work. 
  • Be open to tried and true methods combined with your creative ideas. 
  • No name calling or assessing blame on others; take accountability for your own feelings and actions.

The bottom line to this discussion is that there is no “magic bullet” when it comes to dealing with conflict in the workplace.  Responses to conflict will vary based on numerous factors, including one’s age, and careful thought should go into handling each situation on an individual basis.  The basic FUSION framework may not change; however, sensitivity to the other person’s generation and influences on their thinking is critical.

Please contact me by email at with questions or comments.


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