The great generational divide

David Maxfield (VitalSmarts, Provo, UT, USA)

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 10 August 2015



Maxfield, D. (2015), "The great generational divide", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 14 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The great generational divide

Article Type: How to … From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 14, Issue 4

David Maxfield is VP of Research at VitalSmarts, Provo, Utah, USA.

Study shows unaddressed resentment between Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials saps productivity by as much as 12 per cent.

Christina has a co-worker who behaves poorly as a result of what she and her colleagues perceive as “senioritis”. After 35 years with the organization, the co-worker comes in late, leaves early, takes lengthy personal calls, is resistant to change, and whines when put under pressure from her boss. As a result of this behavior, Christina has lost respect for her colleague.

Ironically, in a neighboring organization, Sheryl also complains of excessive lateness – but from her much younger co-workers. Beyond consistently arriving 10 minutes late, Sheryl says, these young colleagues fail to see how disruptive their behavior is to the rest of the team. When called out on their tardiness by managers, they complain to the union that they are being harassed.

In our recent study about workplace tension between generations, the situations described by Christina and Sheryl are all too commonly being addressed by human resource (HR) directors in corporate America. Specifically, our study showed that more than one in three people waste five or more hours each week (12 per cent of their work week), due to chronic, unaddressed conflict between colleagues from different generations (Maxfield and Grenny, 2014).

Our online survey of 1,350 subjects shows the two generations who have the most difficult time working together are Baby Boomers (50-68 years old in 2015) and Millennials (14-34 years old). When they do work together, the problems these two generations experience most often include:

  • Dismissal of past experience.

  • Lack of discipline and focus.

  • Lack of respect.

  • Resistance to change or unwillingness to innovate.

However, conflict is not isolated to just Baby Boomers and Millennials. Our study, which can be helpful not only to HR but also to all senior leaders, shows the common perceptions and latent resentment each age group has for their colleagues. Specifically:

  • Baby Boomers complain that Gen Xers (35-49 years old) and Millennials lack discipline, focus and are distracted. They also think Millennials lack commitment.

  • Gen Xers complain that Baby Boomers display resistant/dogmatic thinking and are sexist, defensive, incompetent, resistant to change, and lack creativity. They believe that Millennials are arrogant.

  • Millennials complain that Baby Boomers display resistant/dogmatic thinking and are sexist, defensive, insensitive, slow to respond, resistant to change, incompetent, and lack creativity. They also believe Gen Xers have poor problem-solving skills and are generally slow to respond.

What surprised us more than anything was to see how many age-related stereotypes cut across all age categories. It was ironic: some respondents insisted that “She’s lazy because she’s old”, while others said ‘She’s lazy because she’s young”!

HR managers especially should take note: when people attribute their concerns to generational differences, they give themselves an excuse to NOT confront the problem. Generational labels become self-fulfilling prophecies: people think bad behavior is about age, so they do not confront it, so things do not change, which proves the behavior is the result of age differences.

It is really a classic case of what is termed as “the fundamental attribution error” – or the tendency to attribute someone’s behavior to stereotypes rather than more controllable factors. When we commit the fundamental attribution error, we feel justified in not confronting issues because we see our colleagues as “too old” or “too young” to solve problems or create a productive working environment.

In fact, the results do indicate a surprising level of incompetence among all generations to quickly and effectively solve problems through accountability discussions and dialogue.

Back to the study: across all generations, one in four people admitted to avoiding conflict with colleagues of a different age; or if they did speak up, they spoke in generalities and danced around the real issues. Other trends in communication breakdowns across generations include:

  • Younger generations hesitate to hold older generations accountable.

  • Millennials are the least confident in their ability to handle a difficult conversation.

  • Older generations, Baby Boomers and Veterans (69 years old or older), admit to losing their temper more easily with more than one in four saying that they became frustrated, upset or angry during a difficult conversation.

If senior leaders and HR directors teach workplace managers the few basic skills to speak up to anyone – regardless of age or authority – employees can candidly and respectfully resolve conflict and improve productivity in today’s multigenerational workplace. Here are four skills for getting started:

1. Make it safe: Assuming the employee in question has a generational-related issue with their co-worker, help them begin the conversation by clarifying their respect, as well as their intent to achieve a mutual goal. Have them think of a goal that will benefit both parties. What they really want and what they’re asking for are often two different things. One is the purpose. The other is their strategy for achieving it. Help them recognize the difference.

2. Start with the facts: Help your employees describe their facts first. Do not let them lead with their judgments about age or conclusions as to why they behaved the way they did. Help them start by describing in non-judgmental and objective terms the actual behaviors that create the problems.

3. Don’t pile on: Once they start engaging in conversation about the topic with their colleague, if that person becomes defensive, pause for a moment and check in. Reassure him or her you have positive intentions and allow him or her to express concerns.

4. Invite dialogue: After sharing your concerns, encourage your colleague to share his or her perspective. Inviting dialogue will result in greater openness.


Maxfield, D. and Grenny, J. (2014), The Great Generational Divide, VitalSmarts, Provo, UT.

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