Intergenerational Harmony in High-Stakes Organizations

In 2011, a human capital benchmarking study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that 25% of responding HR professionals reported that intergenerational conflict was a problem in their organizations.

That was 6 years ago.

A more recent paper published by Marian J. Carpenter and Linda C. de Charon in the Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture in 2014 added the following:

“For the first time in U.S. history there are five generations in the U.S. workforce, with more than 60 years separating the oldest from the youngest employees.” (Vol. 5, No. 3, p.68)

Carpenter and de Charon point out, however, that a significant source of the conflict reported by many organizations is associated with the demands placed on organizations by the millennial generation, or those employees born after 1980. But think twice before blaming them exclusively for intergenerational conflict.

Ever since research into the habits and preferences of millennials began several years ago, they have been labeled The Trophy Kids, having been raised by parents and communities who were fretful over the prospect of damaging their self-esteem—so they were given awards and praise simply for showing up.

In my opinion, this is an unfair and incomplete perspective. Having managed millennials and having taught them in my classes (and yes, I personally observe their tendency to seem demanding and entitled), I think something has been missing from the equation. A better label, if one is even necessary, would be to think of millennials as the accountability generation.

Consider this. Millennials have possibly been exposed to more corruption, scandal, deception, Ponzi schemes, political and marketing spin, and outright information overload than any generation in history. They are the first generation to grow up in the 24-hour cable news cycle, not to mention the constant influx of information (both accurate and false) that now streams through their mobile devices. No, they were not around for Watergate or the turbulence of the 1960s, but even then, access to information was significantly limited by today’s standards.

It is perhaps better to think of millennials not as a problem but as a logical outcome of how our society has evolved. From a leadership perspective, it is, in fact, wise to think of them as a great opportunity to improve how business is done.

We know that organizations function better when people are credible, clear, and competent. This is what millennials crave. Isn’t this also what we should expect in a forensic science organization? Yes it is, which means that millennials are well-suited to help us build transparency and cultural excellence in our laboratories.

It is a bit hypocritical for some managers, those who prefer a more dictatorial style of management, to blame millennials for having an entitlement-attitude when those same managers feel entitled to the respect and compliance of their subordinates. Millennials see right through this and will demand, either actively or passively, a more competent and reasonable form of leadership.

Creating Intergenerational Harmony
If your organization is dealing with some degree of conflict or tension caused by multiple generations in the workforce, here are some considerations and strategies that you can employ, depending on the severity of the situation.

  • Be leery of generational “humor” that pokes fun at peoples age or experience levels. “Hell, you were in diapers when I first testified as an expert!” These kinds of comments may seem benign on the surface, but they create tension and isolation.
  • Conduct a special 6-month survey where input from all employees is gathered anonymously to identify aspects of the organizational culture or work practices that don’t make sense or seem inappropriate. Use the feedback to improve your operations. Many times, intergenerational conflict is caused by differing perceptions of the same lingering problems. Fix the problems and the conflict may go away on its own. 
  • Encourage millennials (the largest generation) to understand that they have responsibilities. People create their own good fortune by working hard and making smart choices in life. Why would we want it any other way? If you manage millennials, take an interest in both their careers and personal lives. You will learn to appreciate them and what they have to offer. Ask them for their thoughts about the quality of the work culture, but also make sure you challenge them to contribute to its betterment.
  • As explained in my Summer 2014 HR column, expend significant energy to evaluate your organization’s career path opportunities and consider dual-tracking as way to create possibilities for people who aspire to management positions and those who don’t. Single-track career paths that disenfranchise people who wish to grow their technical expertise are harmful to organizational stability. Not all great employees aspire to management positions.

If you are a high-stakes organization or function in a high-stakes, high-pressure environment, then every employee regardless of their age share something in common – they are all high-stakes professionals. Use this to create unity and mutual understanding. And most importantly, make sure people are talking to each other and enjoying each other’s company as often as possible. This is the foundation for teamwork.

By John Collins MA, SHRM-SCP
Published on August 16, 2017

John Collins is a High-Stakes Leadership Consultant and Executive Coach at Critical Victories (www.criticalvictories.com).