4 Ways to Overcome Age-Related Tension in the Office

4 Ways to Overcome Age-Related Tension in the Office
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VP of Research at VitalSmarts
4 min read
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Generational tension is all too common in corporate America. In fact, more than one in three people waste five or more hours each week (12 percent of their work week) due to chronic, unaddressed conflict between colleagues from different generations, according to our recent survey of 1,350 employees.

And yet, after pouring over the findings and reading through hundreds of stories respondents shared about their frustrations with coworkers of a different generation, we were surprised to notice that many age-related stereotypes cut across all age categories. Some insisted that “She’s lazy because she’s old” while others said “She’s lazy because she’s young!”

Related: Learning to Love Working With Millennials

When people attribute their concerns to generational differences, they give themselves an excuse to not confront the problem. Generational labels become self-fulfilling prophecies: people think bad behavior is the result of someone’s age, so they don’t confront it, and as a result, things don’t change, which further proves the behavior is in fact the result of an age difference.

What’s happening in America’s multigenerational workplaces is a classic case of the fundamental attribution error, or the tendency to attribute someone’s behavior to stereotypes rather than more controllable factors. When we commit the fundamental attribution error, we feel justified in not confronting issues because we see our colleagues as ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ to solve problems or create a productive working environment.

The results of our study indicate a surprising level of incompetence among all generations to quickly and effectively solve problems through accountability discussions and dialogue.

Across all generations, a quarter of people admit to avoiding conflict with colleagues of a different age. If they did speak up, they spoke in generalities and danced around the real issues. We also found that younger generations hesitate to hold older generations accountable. On the other hand, older generations admitted to losing their temper more easily with more than one in four people saying they became frustrated, upset or angry during a difficult conversation. Most alarming, perhaps, is that Millennials -- who make up the majority of working America -- are the least confident in their ability to handle a difficult situation.  

Related: 5 Ways to Decrease Interruptions and Increase Productivity

So just what can you do to increase your know-how to address a co-worker, no matter their age or position of authority? What most people don’t realize is that it takes just a few skills to confidently hold others accountable and engage in productive dialogue. Below are four ways to get started in even the most crucial of conversations.

Make it safe. Begin by clarifying your respect as well as your intent to achieve a mutual goal.

Start with the facts. Describe your concerns facts first. Don’t lead with your judgments about their age or conclusions as to why they behaved the way they did. Start by describing in non-judgmental and objective terms the actual behaviors that create problems.

Don’t pile on. If your colleague becomes defensive, pause for a moment and check in. Reassure him or her of your positive intentions and allow him or her to express concerns.

Invite dialogue. After sharing your concerns, encourage your colleague to share his or her perspective. Inviting dialogue will result in greater openness.

It's not surprising that generational differences produce tensions in the workplace, but it doesn't have to be a crippling problem. If situations involving intergenerational differences are approached candidly and respectfully, these conflicts can be resolved quickly and can actually improve relationships.

Related: 4 Ways to Prevent Office Bullies

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