How to Manage Generational Differences on Your Project Team
“Dear Elizabeth: What tips do you have for dealing with workplace generational differences? I have two team members who can’t seem to agree, and it’s causing issues for them and the wider team. I have tried sitting them down and talking, with myself in the role of facilitator, but that didn’t have the result I was hoping for. What do I try next?”
This is tough! As someone who avoids conflict, I have had to look for ways to tackle the issue of conflict in the workplace, and the conversations aren’t easy ones to have. I’d prefer everyone to just work nicely together…but I know that’s a bit of wishful thinking!
When you have a multi-generational workforce, a team under pressure and any number of other factors, you will get conflict.
You’ve made the right start by talking to them and trying to facilitate a resolution. Don’t give up – sometimes it will take a few conversations before entrenched positions start to fall away. While you carry on with that, here are some other suggestions to help you deal with the conflict you are seeing in your team.
Identify the Issue
Is it a current issue? Or is something else bubbling under the surface? Perhaps it’s both—a long-term disagreement that flashes up in the form of conflict from time to time when there’s a particular problem. This is the most likely scenario, if you haven’t been able to get them to move past the disagreement already with the action you have taken.
My advice is to deal with the current source of disagreement first. If you can make some progress on that, unpicking the history becomes easier. Move on to looking at what is causing the wider, longer term problems and work on those next.
Tackle the Generation Gap
If it’s an issue with working style, then generation certainly plays a part. The stereotype of the middle-aged manager who doesn’t want to use Whatsapp to communicate with colleagues exists for a reason.
The stereotype of the millennial who wants constant feedback and can’t see the point in face-to-face meetings is a truism, but grounded in a reality you probably see at work every day.
Get them together and ask them to talk about what it is like being them. What do they see the differences are in working style and how could they be more tolerant of each other’s preferences? It might help to do this as a wider group, without specifically calling out that it’s an exercise to target misunderstandings between your two colleagues.
You Don’t Have To Be Friends
Even people you don’t like have the right to earn a living. It’s lovely to be in a job where you count your coworkers as your friends, but you don’t have to like them. You just have to respect them and act professionally towards them. Differences can even be a good thing as they prompt healthy conflict and debate which in turn can lead to better solutions.
If you can’t seem to resolve the conflict at source, you can remind your colleagues of this. It’s another way of phrasing, “You have to agree to disagree and move on.” but by framing your conversation about workplace “rules” like respecting colleagues, it makes it more about the organizational culture and boundaries that everyone is required to abide by, and less about them as individuals. That is often more palatable.
Listen for the Negative Cheerleaders
Conflict can appear to be about two people, but the ripples can go out far wider. What are the rest of the team saying to support or discredit the individuals concerned? Are there factions? And are these on generational lines?
Other people in the team cheering on the conflict from the sidelines can inflame things further, and it can be easier to stop these people than the main warring parties. Think about what you can do to shut down gossip and unhelpful remarks in the team, as that can take some of the heat out of the conflict.
Focus on the Projects
What is it that your team is supposed to be delivering? Can they refocus their energies on hitting project goals instead of sniping at each other? This is a good time to clarify why they show up to work and how their efforts contribute to delivering something of value for the organization.
This is the common ground that your colleagues have. The project your team is working on is being disrupted by this conflict, and they must see the impact it is having (point it out explicitly if they don’t). Clear project objectives, deadlines, priorities and milestones can all focus energy on doing the work instead of disagreeing with the person at the next desk.
Reform the Team
This is a last resort, but if you are in a management position you may well have the option to reshape the team without both the conflicting parties in it. If they are both good workers in their own right and you don’t want to lose either of them, this could be an option.
It may help to put some distance between them so they have some space to reflect on their behavior and what’s normal for your workplace. This can be especially helpful if emotions are running high and listening isn’t top on anyone’s agenda.
Having said that, reforming a team isn’t a terribly good solution. The source of the conflict will still be there, but the individuals won’t have to work together daily any longer so they’ll be less likely to disrupt each other and everyone else. You haven’t solved the issue; merely displaced it. Watch out for when it boils over again and be prepared!
Is it Really Generational Conflict?
A final point. It’s easy to label team conflicts a ‘generation’ problem. We can brush them off as just two people who can’t see eye to eye because of how their generation responds to workplace challenges. But conflict is rarely that simple, especially when it has been going on for some time. There is often more at play than simply a difference in age.
Don’t fall into the trap of using a neat label when actually the real issue is far more complex. (Sorry!)