4 Steps To Bridging The Workplace Generation Gap

Sometimes it seems like different generations speak different languages. How can we all get along when there’s work to be done?

4 Steps To Bridging The Workplace Generation Gap
[Image: Flickr user D H Wright]

There’s a generation gap living inside your workplace and it may be wreaking havoc on your productivity. The fundamental differences in how various age groups approach work are becoming more pronounced, creating workplace rifts, according to research led by David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny, co-authors of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (McGraw-Hill, 2011).


The two generations that have the toughest time getting along? Baby Boomers (49 to 67 years old) and Millennials (13 to 33 years old). Baby Boomers complain Millennials are easily distracted and lack discipline, focus, and commitment. Millennials believe Boomers are sexist, defensive, insensitive, resistant to change, and lack creativity.

“When there are differences, we tend to blame problems on age,” says Maxfield. “It’s a convenient villain and lets us off the hook for doing anything because we can’t change someone’s age.”

The conflict isn’t isolated to just boomers and Millennials, though. According to Maxfield’s research, Boomers complain that Gen Xers (34 to 48 years old) also lack discipline, focus, and are distracted. Gen Xers tend to agree with Millennials’ description of Boomers and believe Millennials to be arrogant. Millennials believe Gen Xers have poor problem-solving skills and are generally slow to respond.

So how does anything get done? Not well, it seems. All of this stereotyping is causing one in three of us to waste about five hours a week on intergenerational conflicts. Learning how to speak up, regardless of age or authority, can resolve conflict and improve productivity in today’s multigenerational workplace, says Maxfield. He offers these four steps for getting started.


1. Always start out on the same page.

Start off on the same page. Begin by clarifying your respect as well as your intent to achieve mutual goals. “We live in a culture where people don’t confront each other. It’s fight or flight,” says Maxfield. “When we’re concerned, we often go to silence and then the problem builds up. When we do speak up, we speak with anger.”

Avoid this by communicating early, remembering that everyone involved has a common purpose. Remind others that you’re not standing between them and their goal. Be obvious about your motive, and ask if you can share your ideas. “Lead from heart, not from head,” says Maxfield.

2. Lead with the facts.

Don’t lead with your judgments about someone’s age or your assumptions about why they behaved the way they did. “Stick to the facts, not that you think the guy is a lazy, disrespectful jerk,” says Maxfield. Be as specific as possible. Tell the person what you expected to see and what you actually saw, describing the gap. Maybe the gap is there because you didn’t have the same expectations? Or maybe what you observed isn’t what they thought they were doing?

3. Don’t pile on criticism.

Once you’ve stated the facts as you see them, you’ve hit the “hazardous half-minute,” says Maxfield. “You have the first 30 seconds to make your case and turn it from a monologue into a dialogue. If you drone on more than 30 seconds, you’re dead.” If your colleague becomes defensive, pause for a moment and check in. Reassure him or her of your positive intentions.

4. Invite a response.

Finally, after sharing your concerns, encourage your colleague to respond and share his or her perspective. Be willing to listen, remembering that you’re on the same team.

“Inviting a dialogue will result in greater openness,” says Maxfield, “especially if the person has less authority, power, or age than you do.”