Gen Z and Conflict at Work: What Millennial Bosses Need to Know
Generation Z, born sometime between the later 1990s and the mid-2000s, will soon enter the workforce. Like previous generations, they’ll bring many of the expectations they’ve grown up with into the workplace, and employers should be ready for a shift from the previous generation of Millennials.
In fact, 10 years from now we may well find a landscape of Millennial managers and executives just as perplexed by their Gen Z employees as older generations have been with them. While Millennials may be on the brink of ruling the corporate roost, Gen Z employees will bring challenges they may not expect.
By understanding what’s shaped these generations and how their experiences play out through the way they handle conflict, organizations can avoid surprises when younger employees challenge the status quo.
Gen Z vs. Millennials
In 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe published Generations, which outlined their theory for how the formative experiences of generations shape lifelong values. The model also shows how generational archetypes tend to repeat themselves — so we might get a preview of the types of values future generations will hold by looking to the past.
Millennials were raised largely by Baby Boomer parents who grew up in the relative prosperity, openness, and anything-is-possible environment of the mid-20th century.
By the time Boomers encountered the political upheavals of Watergate and the oil crisis in the 1970s, their view of America as strong and capable of expressing the “American dream” was already well established. They passed this perspective on to their Millennial children, who as workers are noted for their demand for self-actualizing experiences rather than just a paycheck.
Gen Z, on the other hand, was raised by Generation X parents, who may be the least likely to believe the American dream is what it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps even more formatively, Gen Z grew up during the Great Recession, when jobs were scarce and the future looked bleak.
As an article in Inc. outlines, this somewhat more hard-boiled history has shaped Gen Z into a more competitive breed than Millennials. From the perspective of the Strauss-Howe model, Gen Z may have more in common with the Silent Generation that as children weathered the Great Depression and World War II.
A Model for Understanding Five Conflict Styles
Conflict is a force in all human relationships and has a particularly significant influence in the workplace, where we spend much of our time and productive effort. To understand how generational background might play out in workplace conflict, we need a framework for understanding conflict.
In the 1970s Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a model for understanding conflict where five conflict styles fall along the intersecting spectrums of assertiveness and cooperativeness, offering a typology for ways of addressing conflict situations.
Competing: At the pinnacle of assertiveness and uncooperativeness, the goal is to win, satisfying your own concerns at another’s expense. When standing up for one’s own rights or defending a correct position, or when quick, decisive action on an important issue is vital, Competing works well.
Collaborating: In this assertive and cooperative mode, the goal is a win–win solution, where you try to satisfy your own and the other person’s needs. This style is most effective when mobilizing a group for long-term change, or when you must merge diverse perspectives to achieve commitment on the parts of all involved.
Avoiding: This uncooperative and unassertive mode doesn’t sound very useful at face value but 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, or when the situation is unimportant or not worth the cost or time to resolve it.
Accommodating: Cooperative and unassertive, the goal of this mode is to yield and satisfy the other person’s or the group’s concern at the expense of yours. It can be highly effective for relationship preservation and goodwill building, or when you primarily need to show empathy — or simply when you’ve realized that you are wrong.
Compromising: This mode sits in the middle of all of the others and has the goal of finding a middle ground and moderately satisfying both parties. If the situation is somewhat important, but ethics, values, and integrity aren’t at stake, and there appears to be mutual willingness to strike a bargain and move more quickly than true collaboration requires, compromising may be effective.
Generations Expressed in Conflict
Earlier we discussed how Gen Z is likely to be more competitive overall than Millennials. Indeed, the Inc. article (www.inc.com/ryan-jenkins/generation-z-vs-millennials-the-8-differences-you-.html) mentioned earlier describes an experiment done offering the chance to arrange one’s own workspace.
Millennials arranged desks into a circle, while Gen Z isolated their desks from one another. This preference for a healthy competition with peers may translate into a preference for the Competing conflict style.
Of course, whether the expression of this preference turns out to be healthy or not depends on the situation.
The article also points out that Gen Z are more hardened digital natives than Millennials, who were old enough to experience the fledgling years of the internet and the digital transformation.
As a result, Gen Z will be less likely to rely on the Compromising style when it comes to the tools they need to be successful. They’ll demand constant connectivity and feel less empowered at work if they have to compromise technology needs.
Finally, in further contrast to conceivably more optimistic Millennials, Gen Z may take a darker view of privacy on the internet and social media. As noted by Inc., Gen Z gravitated more toward Snapchat than members of other generations for the deliberate transience of its content.
Consequently, Gen Z will more often favor the Avoiding style when it comes to privacy. Growing up in an era where trust has been violated with data breaches will impact willingness to share information.
Conflict Style: It’s Not a Trap!
Fortunately, the underlying message of Thomas and Kilmann’s work is to make us aware that while these responses to conflict are often automatic, we can take control over them.
By recognizing that personal histories, including those shared by whole generations, can influence our automatic responses to conflict situations, managers and employees alike can develop better conflict-handling skills. BW
Sherrie Haynie is director of U.S. Professional Services for CPP Inc. and oversees strategies to manage the design, delivery, and operations of consultancy engagements and practitioner development.