Leading Across the Generational Divide: How to Mitigate Conflict and Leverage Strengths of a Multigenerational Workforce

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Article | Accountability Insights

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Corporate leaders face new performance management and workforce development challenges in the era of the multigenerational workforce, which continues to stratify by age group as Americans live longer and choose to work well into their seniority.

According to Pew Research Center, the workforce is now comprised of four generations — Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and post-millennials, who are just reaching working age. At 35%, millennials make up the largest generational demographic in the labor force.

As tenured employees find themselves in the company of less experienced talent, individual differences could heighten conflict and threaten organizational performance. Baby Boomers, for example, may prefer in-person meetings or email to more informal and instantaneous forms of digital communication with which millennials are more comfortable. Older generations may prefer a 9-5 schedule while younger employees prefer flexible hours and remote work. In fact, 68% of millennials report that the possibility of remote work significantly boosts their interest in working for any given employer.

Developing and executing a strategy to create alignment among members of different generations in the workforce yields impressive performance gains. Companies with high levels of diversity and inclusion are 57% better at team collaboration, enjoy a 19% higher rate of employee retention, have a 45% greater chance of increasing market share, and have a 70% higher probability of seeing success in new markets.

With over 30 years of experience in guiding organizations through massive culture transformations and boosting the results of some of the world’s most successful organizations, we’ve uncovered what it takes to create harmony and alignment between generations of employees in the workplace. As a follow-up to our original article “3 Tips for Leading a Successful Multigenerational Organization,” we’ve laid out a set of additional guidelines to help any leader facilitate the cohesion necessary to achieve organizational goals while managing a multigenerational workforce.

1. Mitigate Belief Bias in the Workplace

Belief bias, also known as confirmation bias, refers to the unconscious psychological tendency to selectively filter information that supports the beliefs one already holds, whether or not those beliefs are logically sound. Belief bias can be particularly dangerous in the workplace because it can lead organizational members to mistake beliefs as truths, though in many cases beliefs are actually unsubstantiated — or entirely incorrect — assumptions.

These confirmation biases can negatively color the way individuals perceive attitudes and beliefs that differ from their own, ultimately leading to ideas that threaten team cohesion and the overall success of an organization. As an example, Deloitte researchers discovered that though millennials “are widely thought to be less loyal to their employers than their older colleagues…many of the traits attributed to millennials are related to prevailing economic conditions rather than to fundamental differences in their aspirations.” This misunderstanding of the reasons undergirding a behavior pattern could easily lead to mistrust and belief biases that millennial workers are lazy, disloyal, or non-committal.

In fact, the researchers concluded that “the behavior of Millennials has been shaped by two major factors…the Great Recession, which hit them harder than it hit older generations, and explosive growth in student debt.” In other words, millennials have not broken the pattern of longitudinal commitment to one organization that dominated the preceding generations because they are less consistent — they are simply navigating vastly different economic conditions than those their parents and grandparents experienced at a comparable age.

To combat negative beliefs and establish unity among multigenerational teams, the first step that leaders must take is discouraging belief biases like these in the workplace.

Leaders can conduct annual or semi-annual employee surveys to pinpoint areas in which they ought to focus their attention when it comes to mitigating belief bias. By identifying the mistaken assumptions that generations make about one another, leadership teams dispel the divisive beliefs preventing team cooperation, hindering streamlined workflows, slowing project turnaround, and ultimately hampering performance. The next important step for leaders is to create positive experiences for all employees that demonstrate the unique strengths of colleagues across age brackets.

2. Streamline Internal Communications

Eliminating belief bias helps organizations solidify an egalitarian dynamic between all employees. A crucial element in upholding this equality between people of different age groups and backgrounds is open, honest communication.

Positive and robust internal communications show employees they are valued and heard, increasing employee satisfaction levels, workplace engagement, and, ultimately, organizational profitability. According to our Happiness at Work Survey, when employees who are happier at work, 73% collaborate better, 48% care more about their work, and 85% take more initiative. The Workplace Accountability Index confirms there is a statistically significant relationship between employee engagement and taking effective action: as engagement increases, taking effective action rises as well. These performance improvements translate into more cohesive, invested, and productive teams.

Research published by Watson Wyatt confirmed our findings that effective internal communication directly impacts positive employee engagement levels and thus better outcomes. It reported that companies that boast highly-engaged employees experience a 26% boost in employee productivity and have delivered 13% higher returns to shareholders over the last five years. The Index shows this correlation, too: higher engagement leads to higher achievement.

While members of different generations prefer different kinds of communication, a key to ensuring workforce cohesion is aligning team members around a common platform. Whether that mode is email, in-person conversation, or a new workplace communication tool, all employees should be trained on how to engage in the kind of communication with which the whole team can benefit.

Increasingly, corporate leaders are finding that workplace communication can be optimized with the employment of digital tools. Platforms like Slack and Google Hangout have gained increased traction in businesses across industries in recent years, lauded for their ability to connect geographically-dispersed teams and enable real-time exchanges. However, even these tools are limited in their ability to facilitate the candid exchange of constructive feedback in the workplace.

This is why we created Propeller, our digital solution for teams, to facilitate productive feedback between dispersed workforces – whether by age group, geographic location, or organizational level. Propeller is equipped with a module built for one-on-one, open dialogue, in which any member of the organization can initiate conversation with another.

These feedback capabilities cultivate a cohesive workplace culture by encouraging honest cross-departmental and multigenerational exchanges and fortifying trust and honesty between colleagues. Ultimately, the radically open feedback enabled by the user-friendly module creates greater harmony among multigenerational teams.

3. Establish a Feedback-Focused Company Culture

To this end, establishing honest conversations between colleagues at every level of an organization facilitates cohesive multigenerational teams whose relationships are rooted in transparency and mutual esteem. When leaders speak truthfully to their employees—and employees feel empowered to reciprocate—they collectively create a culture of feedback.

The term “feedback” often incites worry in employees’ minds: feedback is too often associated with punitive and retributive action or outright criticism. Unfortunately, feedback that is rooted in negativity or delivered harshly is rarely effective in serving its purposes.

Rather, workplace feedback should serve the dual purposes of affirming positive workplace behaviors and outlining areas for improvement in a way that is supportive and encouraging. When approached in this way, all feedback is constructive rather than disciplinary.

Establishing positive feedback loops in the workplace in which all employees have regular opportunities for both receiving and offering feedback to colleagues and superiors builds trust between all members of the organization. In turn, this sense of mutual trust often dissolves the apparent differences between members of different generations within the workforce.

However, this sense of mutual trust and willingness to engage in candid feedback exchanges in the workplace may not manifest naturally. As such, it is the responsibility of corporate leaders to model this dynamic by opening themselves up to constructive feedback from employees at all levels. Engaging employees proactively by asking questions such as “What do you think I did well in this situation?” and “What do you think I should do differently next time?” provides a forum in which all employees feel comfortable voicing their opinions.

When this model becomes the precedent, all employees — regardless of position or generation —  feel heard and valued as teammates progressing toward shared organizational goals through honesty and openness.

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