The Generational Label Trap

3 min. read

Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. The literature is full of opinions about generations at work, but should we be listening?

You're probably familiar with the story by now. An article telling you "Baby Boomers are Grumpy, Serious, Workaholics"

Another article saying that "Millennials are Good at Collaborating but Have Fickle Loyalties." Perhaps you've seen "Gen Z is More Likely to Call In Sick."

Should employees be guessing about their coworkers characteristics based on when they were born? Should leaders be managing their workplaces differently based on their workers' ages? If you believe social media, the answer is “yes.” At Amazing Workplace, we think managing that way sounds like a nightmare. Luckily, experts agree with us.

This focus on generational labels in the workplace is not helping, and it might even be hurting. A 2018 study suggests that using generational labels (like "Baby Boomer") creates biases and could make employees behave in a discriminatory way. In addition, generational data are not a reliable way to predict people's behaviors or needs. Influential Sociologist Philip Cohen points out that there are at least six fundamental problems with employing generational labels to make conclusions about people based on the year they were born. Following Cohen's logic, using generational labels for workplace management or interpersonal decisions would be ineffective and possibly downright destructive. If people are using faulty assumptions they're going to get people wrong. Misunderstanding people makes them feel bad and only leads to bad feelings around the workplace. Making people feel bad has a negative impact on creating a better workplace.

It's true that members of different generations are more likely to show certain characteristics, but the best way to lead a workplace with diverse generations doesn't require thinking about those differences at all. Workplaces should focus on building a safe environment with clear leadership on quickly resolving upset and conflict.

As Harvard workplace expert Amy Gallo explains, employees should be using the same approach of listening and understanding to resolve any kind of workplace differences--no matter when the employees were born. Gallo gives a helpful list for employees to go through when they feel workplace conflict coming on:

  1. Focus on what you can control.
  2. Realize your perspective is just one perspective.
  3. Be aware of your biases.
  4. Don’t make it “me against them.”
  5. Rely on empathy to see things differently.
  6. Know your goal.
  7. Avoid gossip.
  8. Experiment to find out what works.
  9. Be — and stay — curious.

Leaders can do their part by quickly resolving upset or conflict when it appears in their teams. This begins with listening. As the Business blog from Northeastern University suggests, leaders should begin the conversation without preconceived notions about what's going on or what people might be thinking. Instead, they should invite their team members to come to them with any upset, listen with an open mind, make sure they understand, and then focus on behavior—not identity. This means acknowledging everything that has happened before making suggestions on changes that might need to be made. Often just listening and providing a sounding board resolves upset. One successful action a leader can take is asking the following question: Do you need my help resolving and issue, or do you just need to vent? In any case, the generational background of the employees isn't a factor.

Northwestern points out that a trip to Human Resources is the last step, and is only needed when behavior is ongoing or presents special risks to the company or the leader does not have the tools to resolve the situation. That said, Human Resources may have expertise in creating improvement plans or applying more complex policies to resolve some situations.