Your guide to managing intergenerational conflict in the workplace

9 min read | Christoph Niewerth | Article | Leadership Managing a team

Four adults of various ages sitting in discussion

Learn all about managing intergenerational conflict in the workplace. Christoph Niewerth, a Hays worldwide recruiting expert, gives you the ultimate guide.


Managing intergenerational conflict: Key insights

Workforces are becoming more age diverse. In many workplaces, we now see five generations of employees working together. This trend is now making its way into the upper echelons of businesses around the world. 

Every day, more and more Millennials rise through the ranks and earn their seat at the leadership table. Sat beside them are Baby Boomers and Generation Xers. In these scenarios, intergenerational conflict might feel inevitable – but there are ways to handle it. You should:

  • Identify the source of conflict
  • Accept all points of view
  • Work towards mutual respect
  • Foster an effective work-life balance

By working towards these goals, you advance towards managing intergenerational conflict in the workplace. Read on to learn how.


Managing intergenerational conflict: Background

Effectively nurturing and leading an age-diverse team can be a tough balancing act. I personally am a Generation X leader who manages a range of ages. Such a diverse team of perspectives and thoughts can be hugely conducive to open and innovative dialogue. 

The result can be positive business outcomes. However, if managed poorly, intergenerational conflict can occur, having the opposite effect.

The key is to identify the disparities causing intergenerational tension within your leadership team. Every team of leaders will be different. 

However, the vast research on the subject of intergenerational management, plus the lessons I’ve learnt during my own career, point to common and recurring differences. My advice would be to look out for these differences and respond accordingly.


1. Identify the sources of miscommunication

It is widely believed that of the three generations, Baby Boomers are the most inclined to communicate face-to-face. 

Millennial leaders, on the other hand, grew up with the advent of social media. Millennials are fluent in the quickest, most efficient ways to talk to one another digitally. In fact, in a survey conducted by PwC, over 40 per cent of Millennials said they would prefer to electronically communicate at work. 

Generation X is largely thought to be the most independent, “silent” type of worker. As Bruce Tulgan, author of “Managing Generation X: How to Bring out the Best in Young Talent” explains, Generation X is “the great under-supervised generation. They came into the workplace at a time when everybody was telling employees to take responsibility for their own successes.” 

So, this generation of leaders may tend to be quite minimalist in their communications. They will stick to email, speaking on the phone or arranging a face-to-face meeting as and when necessary.

Taking all of this into consideration, there could be clashes when a multi-generational team of leaders needs to collaborate. For instance, some leaders may expect to have biweekly meetings followed up by minutes and clear action points. Others may expect to correspond solely via email, and the rest may want to work in silos.

My advice here is that you need to set the standard right from the beginning. Of course, the “right” way of communicating will differ on a task-by-task basis. 

Each time your team of leaders needs to work together, be crystal clear on how you envisage them communicating. This will ensure that every time leaders need to collaborate, communications are streamlined, and differences are put aside.


2. Embrace every perspective

Naturally, each generation of leaders will have a different view of how best to meet the needs of the business. For example, one merit of young leaders (especially if recently promoted) is that they will naturally have a stronger affinity with their junior former peers. It wasn’t so long ago that they were part of the team. 

Younger leaders may therefore have a better understanding of both employees on the frontline. On the other hand, it may have been quite some time since the Baby Boomer and Generation X leaders worked so close to the frontline of the business. 

Look out for these differing points of view when your team of leaders has discussions. Encourage an open debate between them, but ensure every leader is able to say their piece. A huge source of intergenerational conflict can stem from one generation feeling like they aren’t being heard.

I have found that Millennial leaders can sometimes be less forthcoming in their ideas due to their relative lack of leadership experience. So, it’s important to try to champion them, giving them their platform as voices of tomorrow.


3. Establish a mutual respect

Cultivating and demonstrating mutual respect between colleagues is a common issue within a multi-generational leadership team. Particularly, this is common between the Baby Boomers and the younger members of Generation X/Millennials.

Management professor Nicholas Pearce outlines how Baby Boomers tend to respect hierarchy and tenure of position within that hierarchy. By default, younger Generation X and Millennial leaders are often new to their positions, so won’t be granted this respect as readily. 

Conversely “Generation Xers and Millennials are more likely to give respect to those who are seen as deserving—regardless of where they fit in the organisation’s hierarchy”.

Observe the dynamic between your leaders during your next leadership meeting. Try to notice if one generation is overly dismissive toward the other by ignoring their opinions or interrupting them.

Make sure you leverage and commend the skills of every leader. Emphasise how these skills contribute to the wider goals of the organisation. This should help to unify your leadership team and value one another’s expertise.


4. Encourage work-life balance

Lastly, it is widely believed that boomers make for competitive, industrious, results-driven leaders. A report written by the AMA claims that Baby Boomers will place careers above their personal life, continuing part-time work even after retirement. 

Conversely, the common consensus is that Generation Xers and Millennials see work-life balance as an important prerequisite for job satisfaction. In fact, according to a number of our What Workers Want reports from around the world, these generations place this of far higher importance than Baby Boomers.

Therefore, it’s not unusual for a multi-generational team of leaders to judge others. They might focus on working hours, holiday usage or how much time they spend working during downtime. 

The way to overcome these tensions, once again, is by having a clear stance on work-life balance. Encourage the workaholics to switch off outside of office hours.

Of course, there will be outliers and crossovers within each generation. The above are not intended to be sweeping statements about every member of each generation. Instead, they are observations from my own personal experience, complemented by credible research based on managing intergenerational conflict in the workplace.


Managing intergenerational conflict: Next steps for your business

As the leader of a multi-generational team of leaders, it is your job to understand everybody’s differences and orchestrate them. The aim is to reach an inclusive and harmonious leadership discourse. 

There are now five generations of employees within the workplace. With this growth in diversity comes a greater need for collaborative leaders who can learn to manage workplace intergenerational conflict. I would advise that you get a head start.

Want to further hone your leadership skills? Our leadership tips and advice will help you become the leader you want to be.


About this author

After completing his degree as a qualified industrial engineer, Christoph Niewerth joined Ascena (former Hays) as an account manager in 1999. After progressing to department manager, he later became a divisional and branch manager. In 2008 he was appointed Director of Contracting.

In January 2012, Mr Niewerth joined the Board of Directors and was appointed Chief Operating Officer. He is responsible for the Sales specialisms IT, Finance, Legal, Retail and Sales & Marketing in Germany as well as the company’s affiliates in Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. He is also responsible for Talent Solutions, public affairs and strategic customer development.

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