Individuals with generational differences can learn to manage conflict effectively, and bring positive results from a conflict-laden environment.
With Baby Boomers on the brink of retirement, companies need to recruit, retain and develop talent from the next generation of employees more than ever before. But radically different current events and technologies have shaped the Millennial, Baby Boomer and Gen X generations, making workplace conflict inevitable when you mix all three together into a single workforce.
Meet Gen Y: Plugged in, idealistic, competitive
Perhaps more than in the past, company reputation matters to Generation Y, and they want to make a difference in the world. Furthermore, they want flexibility and control of their time at the office, and opportunities for development. Interestingly, many Millennials care less about pay and more about career growth than other generations.
So how do you reach company zen with a group of highly competitive, highly idealistic team members? One example from a leading Fortune 500 Automotive & Transport Company is by providing training to help team members assess their conflict handling style and determine which style they naturally gravitate towards.
Measuring conflict style
Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a model for understanding interpersonal conflict along two dimensions--assertiveness and cooperativeness--that offers a great deal of insight into how conflict can be managed among groups with wide-ranging differences. They identified five styles or “modes” that exhibit varying degrees along dimensions of “assertiveness” and “cooperativeness”:
Competing: In this assertive and uncooperative mode, the goal is to win, satisfying your own concerns at another’s expense. This style is most effective when standing up for your rights or defending a correct position, as well as when quick, decisive action on an important issue is vital.
Collaborating: The objective of this assertive and cooperative mode is a win–win solution, where you try to satisfy your own concerns and the other person’s concern. This style is most effective when mobilizing a group for long-term change, as well as when you must merge diverse perspectives to achieve commitment and dedication on the part of all involved.
Avoiding: This uncooperative and unassertive mode often gets a bad rap, but it can be appropriate when the goal is to delay. This style is effectively used when you need to preserve time and energy, when you need time to prepare or cool off before addressing the situation, or when the situation is unimportant or not worth the cost or time to resolve it. Additionally, if you can’t win, sometimes avoiding is the way to go.
Accommodating: Cooperative and unassertive, the goal of this mode is to yield and satisfy the other person or group’s concern at the expense of yours. While it may not sound too appealing on the surface, it can be highly effective when you want to preserve a relationship and build goodwill, or when you primarily need to listen and show empathy -- or when you’ve simply realized that you are wrong.
Compromising: This fifth mode sits more or less in the middle of all of the others, and has the goal of finding a middle ground or splitting the difference, and moderately satisfying both parties. If the situation is somewhat important, but ethics, values, and integrity are not at stake, and there appears to be mutual willingness to strike a bargain and move more quickly than true collaboration requires, compromising may be an effective style.
Asking questions to better understand conflict
It is important to recognize that conflict can arise over positive things too, and that a degree of conflict is actually a necessary component of innovation. If no one cares enough to engage in conflict, do you have enough energy to carry the business forward? Whether conflict arises from positive or negative origins, it can have a destructive influence if not handled properly. One of the first steps should always involve determining which conflict mode or style is most appropriate. As you assess the situation, start by asking a few critical questions:
How important is the issue to me? If it is truly important, why? The more important the issue, the more likely that an assertive, uncooperative mode such as competing will be appropriate. However, when scrutinized, it’s clear that the issue is less important than originally thought, so you may consider unassertive or cooperative approaches such as compromising.
How much time do I have to reach a conclusion? True collaboration takes time, so if this is in short supply, you may need to consider options that have a quicker, more decisive outcome. If it’s really important and you’re convinced that you’re right, Competing may be necessary. If not, you may do just as well by accommodating the other party’s wishes.
How much support do I need to ensure success? If the answer is “a lot”, it’s going to be tough to employ uncooperative or assertive styles--unless you want to stake your entire reputation on it.
In conclusion, don’t let GenY’s idealism or propensity for handling conflict through competing rattle you. Individuals with even vastly varying generational differences can learn to manage conflict effectively, and bring positive results from a conflict-laden environment through methods such as conflict management training. After all, passion stirs conflict but it also sparks innovation, which every business needs.
Sherrie Haynie is Director of US Professional Services for people development firm CPP Inc.
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