Managing intergenerational conflict

by Janie Smith14 Aug 2014
Managing intergenerational conflict is an important issue for HR, according to Change2020 director Kerryn Fewster.

“I would say it’s probably in the top five challenges, along with retaining talent and employee engagement and things like that.”

She said that different leadership styles and expectations of work culture could cause friction within the workforce.

“Baby boomers have that more dictatorial, direct style which is, ‘I’ll tell, you follow’ but the multitude of workers is saying, ‘Why don’t we talk about it?’ and ‘Why don’t we look at it a different way?’.

They’ve been brought up in an environment where curiosity and challenge and collegial conversations are the norm.”

She said that even things like office design could cause conflict – as a recent client case demonstrated.

A third-tier construction company that was expanding into new areas hit a snag when the younger leadership put forward their office plan.

“They want open plan. They don’t need it to be an ivory tower. They’re looking for a place that will contribute to open conversation, is flexible – all the things you and I might look for in an engaging work space. The ones who make the ultimate decisions say, ‘That’s not how we do business’.”

She said the older leadership didn’t necessarily recognise the benefit of open communication in the office and it was about building trust that workers were still productive, even if they were able to chat to each other.

“What we’ve seen work quite well is where the knowledge and experience of the older workforce is really embraced and seen as a great opportunity to foster a learning culture. From day one, they’re part of the induction and they’re the storytellers. I think that’s a really critical component. In my experience, people want to be heard. They want to have questions asked of them.”

Establishing mentoring relationships early on with new employees could also be useful.

“Humanise the sharing of information and the development. Mentoring programs are a really good way to do that. It shows that there is value to be contributed by all levels of the organisation, regardless of age or duration of service.

“Fundamentally, there are levels of brilliance and capability regardless of your age, shape, gender or background and it’s about harnessing that. Anyone can learn at any age and if a person is important to the organisation in terms of what they deliver and how they do things, invest in them.”

Have you experienced intergenerational conflict in the workplace?

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