Yesterday during a community workshop I hosted, the challenges of working with and managing millennials came up as a specific conflict at one table. We were exploring the idea of conflict styles and whether/how our natural styles for managing conflict were working (or not working) for the variety of people in the room and their diverse work responsibilities. The conversation was rich and varied as individuals reflected on their own typical approaches and challenges. The case of the friendly,easy-going (conflict avoidant) manager, lets call him Jeff, struggling to work with a team of mostly millennials really struck a cord with me.
From my vantage point as a conflict management professional, Jeff’s story seemed like a common case of workplace culture gone sour. Jeff is well-meaning and otherwise skilled at his job. His employees seemed to have a more direct, assertive approach and weren’t shy about telling Jeff what he was doing wrong. Not surprisingly, Jeff did not like the dynamic that had been established in his office but felt poorly equipped to change it. An older professional at the table (a baby boomer from the east coast) cut right to the chase telling Jeff, “It’s simple! You just have to be the boss. Put them back in their place and don’t take any more crap from them!” While there was something “right” about this suggestion, you could tell it just didn’t sit well with Jeff. For his part, Jeff is a member of Generation X. Christine Henseler calls this group “a generation whose worldview is based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, AIDS, a generation in search of human dignity and individual freedom, the need for stability, love, tolerance, and human rights for all.” These ideals of equality and individual freedom clearly butted up against the more authoritative and directive approach of the boomer at the table, but Jeff’s current strategies clearly weren’t working for him. In fact, it sounded as if the millennials had fully trampled Jeff’s own human dignity with their strong and outspoken ideas and direct confrontation to his requests.
Depending on your definition of a millennial, I myself may be a part of this civic-minded but oddly narcissistic generation. Admittedly, I find myself on the older (oldest) extreme of this group and could also be lumped in with the Generation X crowd, albeit on the very young end of this group. Nonetheless, as a millennial myself I could totally identify with the outspoken nature of Jeff’s employees. I understood that their strategies were inappropriate in some ways but also noticed my own strong feelings in wanting them to still have a say in the company. In other jobs, I have struggled with “knowing my place” and demurely accepting management’s decisions when I disagreed with them. While my own approaches to these situations have always been much more civil and respectful, I am sure that my supervisors didn’t always appreciate my suggestions or my candor in offering them.
As we discussed Jeff’s situation at our table, I noticed the cultures of each of our groups playing out in the very ways we viewed the problem and its possible remedies. As with so many things, the conflict in Jeff’s office wasn’t just about the everyday work getting done, there was conflict in how to even address and resolve the tactical concrete problem itself. Expectations for the roll of a manager/boss as well as expectations for employees were not at all agreed upon. While our boomer wanted Jeff to “man up” and seize control and Jeff’s natural instinct was to just let things go. I saw both the need for clear roles AND the opportunity for lower-level employees to have a say in the company. The “problem statement” seemed to be: How might Jeff and his employees enjoy open and honest communication while maintaining a culture of respect and appropriate authority?
In the end, all conflicts have a cultural element. Whether they be cultures divided by race, class, gender, age, or even simply conflict style, our cultures dictate our expectations for how things should be done, including how we should resolve conflicts. It is my hope that in stepping back from heated and frustrating situations we can more clearly see these cultural differences for what they are. In the case of Jeff’s Generation X, conflict avoiding self clashing with Millennial conflict embracing employees, common ground could be extremely empowering. Indeed, even the boomer’s ideas could support aspect of a positive working relationship, when properly understood and adapted to fit Jeff’s office’s needs.
My hope for Jeff, and for all of us in similar situations is that we can take the time to step back, re-examine our own cultural orientations, and use those clues to help us build common ground. I’m still uncertain if this is something Jeff will be able to do on his own of if he’ll need an outsider to come in and help his team have this conversation. Regardless, I am hopeful that the conversation can happen!