21st Century Workplace Conflict

Steven D. Carter
Feb 16, 2020 · 8 min read

Understanding and Managing Conflict in Today’s Workplace

Conflict is unavoidable. However, not all conflict is bad. Understanding the root causes of conflict can create an avenue of understanding to better manage conflict. Workplace conflict can be understood and managed with a few simple strategies.

Today’s workplace is multigenerational and multicultural. The baby boomers have dominated the workplace for more than 50 years currently they are retiring at a rate of 10,000 a day. In fact, baby boomers are no longer the largest generation in our society. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 73 million baby boomers have been eclipsed by 83 million millennials.

According to the Brookings Institute, millennials make up “almost two-fifths of the working-age population.” A total of 44.2% come from minorities or ethnic groups. Millennials make up much of the workforce, but the generational diversity still includes five distinct generations:

  • Traditionalists — born before 1946.
  • Baby Boomers — born between 1946 and 1964.
  • Generation X — born between 1965 and 1976.
  • Millennials or Generation Y — born between 1977 and 1997.
  • Centennials or Generation Z — born after 1997.

Never before have so many generations actively participated in the workforce at the same time. This multigenerational and multicultural workforce creates a natural brew of conflict as well as a highly competitive advantage for managers that engage the synergy this can create. When conflict is effectively managed, that competitive advantage is maximized.

Today’s highly competitive advantage comes from leveraging today’s diverse multigenerational and multicultural workforce.

This diversity flows across attitudes, approaches, perspectives, opinions, and values. From that, you can expect conflict varying from mild to complete mayhem. Workplace conflict has always existed but when properly managed it creates healthy work relationships that are essential to keeping businesses relevant in our constantly changing society. This requires understanding and appreciating many different points of view.

A Generational Power Shift

Today’s transitioning baby boomers have done well to bring technology into the workplace. However, younger generations place more trust in technology. When technology-related conflict arises, management does better by listening to the tech-savvy. The younger generations also bring a lot of different attitudes and perceptions about what it means to be part of today’s workforce. For many, their value system begins with ‘who I am’ and ‘what I do.’ This includes the ability to have courageous conversations that raise difficult issues which include providing tough feedback.

When asked to take on anything from a simple task to a complex project, they want to know ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ It involves a complex combination of inclusion, autonomy, and full transparency. Transparency is at the heart of ‘why’ they need to do something. If they don’t understand the ‘why,’ they will not commit wholeheartedly. They also want to know the ‘how’ to establish a beginning point. They want to know how to get started but expect changes to happen as the project develops. The changes come from their autonomy to make unique contributions. But at the same time, they expect inclusion and teamwork. They see this combination as the best way to achieve superior results.

Conflict management begins with a complex combination of inclusion, autonomy, and full transparency.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of differences between today’s workforce and the preceding generations of employees. Others include:

· Full acceptance and inclusion of cultural and ethnic differences.

· A less-formal workplace.

· Less formal dress code.

· Flexible work hours.

· More texting communication and less face-to-face.

· New benefits such as parental leave.

· Company-sponsored snack and game rooms to breed creativity and social interaction with co-workers.

Future generations will conform to new cultural and societal demands, but the reality is there has always been a ‘generation gap’ as every new generation assumes a prominent role in the workplace.

Dealing With Generational Conflict in the Workplace

Despite less face-to-face communication and more flexible work hours, younger generations have embraced an ability to work and collaborate as teams. They use a full range of technology-based communication techniques. An offshoot of team collaboration is to question authority (which is not an invention of this generation). Authority is challenged for being inflexible and relying on dated practices that are considered outdated in the technology era.

Directives from authorities are viewed as beginning points rather than as a conclusive set of directions of what needs to be accomplished. This is where the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’ become important to reducing conflict. Without a full and transparent explanation of why something needs to be done, Millennials and Centennials cannot conceive ‘how’ the best result will be accomplished.

Transparency of the ‘Why’ it must be done and flexibility with the ‘How’ to do it simplifies conflict management.

With a project or objective defined, management’s role shifts towards providing technology collaboration platforms while still encouraging face-to-face communication and monitoring key milestones. Conflict management is more about transparency and flexibility and less about formal policies and directives. Included in this are:

· The younger workforce is more likely to respond cooperatively to decisions, even unfavorable ones if they’ve been consulted in a transparent process.

· Listening to all participants is vital. Consensus is not required, but acknowledging differing opinions and viewpoints is valued and appreciated.

· Considering all perspectives enables a holistic view to make informed decisions.

· Be open and clear in your communications. This includes feedback as well as clarifying assumptions and seeking information. Feedback is interactive. It includes seeking opinions and exchanging views and information.

· Voice your expectations clearly and encourage honest dialogue with constructive criticism to management and across the collaborating team. Encourage more face-to-face dialog when conflict is in play.

Although today’s workforce is distinctive, basic conflict management remains a win-win goal across all generations, cultures, ethnicities, genders, religions, education, and experience. Resources are always limited but outcomes must still produce clear and focused results. The value of win-win outcomes is that these can be achieved by different people in different ways and yet obtain the same results. This comes from the synergy of collaboration. Conflict must be tempered with respect, empathy, an open unbiased attitude, and a flexible approach for a harmonious and efficient workplace.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Win-Win Without Conflict or Compromise

The win-win method addresses the five possible outcomes involving conflict:

1. Collaboration

2. Avoidance

3. Compromise

4. Competition

5. Accommodation

Collaboration is always the desired outcome. Win-win is all about collaborating through transparent communication that assures the most diverse solutions are created by incorporating goals supported by multiple generations, cultures, ethnicities, genders, religions, education, and experience.

A collaborated win-win solution means that all parties can get what they want. Win-win requires a paradigm shift in how we seek solutions. It’s not a perfect world and not every solution will be perfect but at least you start from a paradigm where everyone can win.

Only with Win-Win is everyone fully committed to taking the required actions.

Avoidance is a valid conflict management method. In the win-win model, this is called a “No-Deal.” Another popular phrase is “agreeing to disagree.” Certainly, this isn’t the most preferred outcome but as a conflict management tool, it preserves a team’s ability to walk away from a controversial project when individual goals cannot be mutually achieved. The integrity of the team remains intact to collaborate on future projects.

Compromise and competition are intricately connected. This is not a preferred conflict management tool. Compromise implies each individual must give up something in exchange for something else. The result is either win-lose or lose-lose. It is not a win-win. Rather than collaborating for mutually beneficial goals, individuals compete with one another to obtain more than the other. Sometimes, compromise means that this time you get your way and next time I get my way. Most importantly, synergistic results do not come from compromise and competition.

Work teams are much more effective through collaboration than through competition.

Accommodation can go either way. This method can work if one person’s goals can be accommodated without compromising the goals of others. Additional resources and time are almost always required when accommodation is the result. When you first begin with collaboration, you may end up with accommodation, which is a better result than compromise.

Accommodation is viable only after full collaboration does not produce a single set of mutually beneficial outcomes.

What goes into win-win collaboration? You need integrity and trust to accomplish a win-win. Without integrity, it becomes easy to allow others to lose. Without trust, there is always a suspicion that someone will benefit more. Integrity and trust result from transparent communication. Integral to having mutual goals is defining measurable milestones and outcomes. For this to work, everyone must keep their commitments.

Collaboration requires you have the maturity to understand the needs of others and that their needs are as important as your own. Mutual respect and empathy matter! Maturity is the ability to look for long-term results rather than short-term gratification. It is understanding that meaningful work relationships can stand the test of time.

Win-win also requires that you believe there is enough to go around for everyone. Getting your way doesn’t mean someone else can’t get theirs.

The solution isn’t dividing a small pie; the solution is creating a bigger pie.

Finally, when you have leadership and management responsibilities, win-win situations thrive by aligning outcomes with a reward system. If you have a reward system only for winners, it encourages everyone to follow a competitive paradigm. Core to the collaboration paradigm is that everyone can be rewarded when everyone contributes to achieving the desired results. If the reward system only rewards two out of ten participants, you’ll miss out on the synergy of the other eight. Even if you convince everyone to fully participate the first time, the results will be diminished the next time.

On the other hand, if everyone wins, his or her enthusiasm will increase the next time — assuming you’ve built trust that collaboration is the paradigm that will be rewarded. To create a reward system that works, you must first understand the people involved and what motivates them. Cooperation and collaboration are inclusive of multiple generations, cultures, ethnicities, genders, religions, education, and experience.

Win-win solutions come from win-win rewards and processes.

Conflict management is not an act of agency. It includes emotions that 21st century leaders must manage with Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills. Effective leaders also empower their employees to manage conflict by fostering a culture of mutual trust and respect.

“ When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion” ~ Dale Carnegie

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Steven D. Carter

Written by

Harvard Senior Executive Fellow; Doctorate in Business; Expertise in strategy, innovation, business, and IT; Adjunct Professor of Business at UMGC.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Steven D. Carter

Written by

Harvard Senior Executive Fellow; Doctorate in Business; Expertise in strategy, innovation, business, and IT; Adjunct Professor of Business at UMGC.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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