Don't Let Generational Conflict Kill Your Small Business

The generations in your company aren't who they used to be. Here's what you need to know now.
Don't Let Generational Conflict Kill Your Small Business
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Generational studies have been around for a decade now. Most of us ticked generational differences off our competency list years ago.

Millennials? Lots of feedback. Boomers? Use the phone.

And that was fine. Until now.

Right now, generations at work are changing faster than you can say “demographic cohort.”

First, millennials aren’t the new guys any more. They’re established, experienced and the largest generation in the workplace -- basically the new gorilla in the corner. Meanwhile, a boomer retires every seven seconds, and 4.5 million Gen Zs (a.k.a. Gen Edge, Founders, Homelanders) graduate and join companies each year.

By 2020:

  • 13 million more boomers will have retired. 
  • 50% of all workers will be millennials
  • Gen X will own the C-suite.
  • 30 million Gen Zs will have joined the workforce. 

On top of that, young generations increasingly own the table. Tech ability catapults millennials up the ladder, and lack of tech skills drags older generations down. One in three of us works for someone younger, and that number keeps growing.

Related: 3 Tips for Creating a Millennial-Friendly Workplace

When cultures collide

As the generations shift, traditional boomer-based workplace culture is dissolving. Millennial ways of getting work done are taking hold. Conflict is inevitable.

That was the lesson one of my clients -- we’ll call her Hannah -- learned in her startup. Early on, an investor offered the the company free office space, and Hannah moved her team in.

But the traditional space never worked for the mostly millennial team. Satisfied that the office layout was stifling speed and innovation, Hannah moved the team to a co-working center. The team loved it. Her investor did not.

To the investor’s way of thinking, he had offered beautiful offices, and for free. Hannah tried to explain how her team worked -- at all hours, often from home and always collaboratively -- but that only made matters worse.

The clash was generational. Hannah ’s investor is a boomer. Her group is millennial. As for Hannah, she’s a typical Gen Xer, looking for what works, and like Xers everywhere, forced to run interference between boomers and millennials.

Small business gets hit especially hard by this kind of thing. A single flare-up between a “get ‘er done” Gen Xer and a process-driven boomer, for example, causes more disruption without the buffer of a large group. Small businesses literally cannot afford generational disconnects.

A tipping point

Hannah’s bind is fairly typical of what I see in my consulting. When multi-generational groups reach an impasse, the whole enterprise can be at risk. During recent years, I’ve noticed a distinct uptick in the intensity of generational conflict.

That’s why I wanted to construct an up-to-date picture of how the generations actually relate at work now. I surveyed 1,100 employees from four generations and compiled a report

Three realities emerged immediately:

  • Generation Xers remain outliers whose biggest challenge is working with millennials.
  • Boomer-based workplace culture is dissolving, but not without a fight.
  • Millennials and boomers are surprising similar, except around technology.

This is potentially a recipe for conflict, miscommunication, turnover and low productivity -- but not if you recognize what’s going on and step in first. Here’s how.

1. Pay attention to Generation X

Let’s say that another way. Stop paying so freakin’ much attention to millennials, and focus on the keystone of your group, Gen Xers. The original latch-key kids, this generation grew up independent. If you have a no-nonsense lone wolf who just gets shit done, she’s likely an X.

And somewhat isolated. My research shows an uneasy fit between self-reliant Gen Xers and relational Booms and millennials. Why is X on the outs? Communication style is part of it. As a rule, Gen Xers don’t waste time making nice.

Here’s your move: Xers have digital chops and decades of experience. Make sure you know what Xers want from their careers. Make sure they get to grow.

In addition, make sure Xers are part of regular, structured give and take. Daily check-ins, for example, or regular brainstorming can pull in otherwise isolated Xers.

Related: Don't Just Hire Millennials, Think Multigenerational

2. Get out ahead of work ethic conflicts

Work ethic is the hot button term that gets thrown around when one generation doesn’t understand how another generation works. The real issue is nearly always hours.

The question is “Who owns my time?” The traditional answer is that the company sets the hours, period. A realistic answer is “At the very least, I expect to have input about my schedule.”

Here’s your move: Make job descriptions work hard. Build in details about where and when the work gets done. Each generation makes decidedly different assumptions about hours, so don’t take anything for granted.

3. Tame the tech disconnect

One surprise in our research is how closely millennials and boomers align. Boomers chose millennial-centric responses 31 percent of the time. Millennials choose boomer-centric responses 30 percent of the time. That’s significant overlap.

Clearly, millennials and boomers aim to cooperate. The problem is that they don’t always communicate. The breakdown is most often digital.

Take the word “talk” for example. For boomers, the word means hearing your voice. But for millennials, texting is “talking.” If a chasm opens, Boomers’ work becomes irrelevant because they don’t do tech, and millennials fall out of the loop because they don’t do face time.

Here’s your move: Boomers grew up analog, and young generations grew up digital. They need different kinds of tech training. Experiential works for digital generations, but boomers need linear, contextual training. Hold boomers accountable for tech skills, and hold millennials accountable for getting over phone phobia and learning to work face to face.

Back to Hannah’s dilemma. First she went to her investor with impressive productivity numbers for her team in the new space. At the same time, she asked the team to document hours rigorously. She says, “I realize I’ve got to get the generations to pull together.” Right now her business depends on it.

Related: 4 Ways Millennials and Baby Boomers Make the Dream Team

Solutions for generational conflict

Give me my time. Give all generations a sense of control over their time. Examples: self-scheduling teams, PTO rather than set vacation and sick days, job-sharing, part-time roles.

Gimme voice: Create multiple ways for everybody to offer input about decisions that affect their work. Examples: Fix-its, town halls, online forums. Every generation needs to be heard.

Mentor me: Try two-way, on-call mentoring. Millennials help boomers with tech, and boomers help with skills like negotiation and presentations.

Talk this way: Agree on guidelines about what kinds of messages are sent via text, email, shared pages, phone, screen time or face-to-face. (“I’m late” is text. “I quit” is face-to-face.)

Find more solutions here.

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