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Generational Workplace Drama: How Can We All Just Get Along?

Ypulse President Dan Coates’ insights on how to get past the generational generalizations, and find peace, love, and understanding among Boomers, Xers, and Millennials in the workplace.

Today’s post is by Ypulse President Dan Coates.


While we don’t believe any of these tropes, permit us to repeat the complaints we’ve heard as we interview employees of various generations across companies big and small: 

Millennials are entitled, lazy and self-centered. They expect the entire organization to change to meet their needs, capriciously job-hopping with a complete lack of loyalty.

Xers are mean-spirited and cynical, acting like mercenaries seeking personal gain. They’re not team players and there’s nothing constructive about their criticism.

Boomers are staying past their welcome in the workforce as a result of having overspent and under-saved. They have brought us to the brink of ruin based on their moral crusades, insisting that everyone must believe what they believe, live how they live and work how they work.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Have you huddled around the water cooler with your generational peers, remarking at how people younger (or older) than you simply “don’t get it”? Admittedly, we’ve all done this at one point or another. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that anyone that does things differently than you is doing it wrong. The reality is that different generations can be counted on to approach the same problem from a different angle, deploying different skillsets and with a different definition of success in mind. Speaking in sweeping generalities:

Millennials, having come of age during America’s long boom, take a team-oriented approach and mitigate decision risk by developing consensus. They seek out win-win solutions where neither party loses and no one gets hurt. Safety first.

Xers, having come of age during a time of great social upheaval, trust no one and take a competitive approach with a zero-sum game mindset. A generation of ‘free agents’, they aspire to reach the top by seeking high-risk situations where disproportionate rewards await the courageous and capable.

Boomers, having come of age at a time when winners and losers carved up the globe in the wake of two world wars, take an us-versus-them approach where competitors are vanquished and empires are built based on loyal tribes rallying around powerful leaders.

It’s tough for companies to be successful unless the entire team is working from the same playbook, which is why great leaders are generationally ambidextrous. My first boss was a Boomer to the core. He rallied our little tribe against a common enemy, interpreting each new client win as the event that would ‘drive a stake through the heart’ of any competitor unlucky enough to be in his crosshairs. To his credit, he knew exactly how to get the most out of his Generation X workers: by challenging us to compete for his approval. We Xers referred to this situation within our company as the “cage match,” looking into the eyes of our formerly beloved colleague, knowing that the only way to receive our reward was to beat them. And compete we did—it was so nice to bask in the sunshine of approval that panic set in and swords were taken up whenever storm clouds of disapproval rolled back into view. 

Similarly, I know more than a few astute Xer leaders who wrap their organizations around a higher purpose or social cause, understanding that Millennials won’t come to work simply to earn a living.

It’s entirely possible to understand, motivate and inspire generations that precede and follow our own. If you fully understand a generation’s perspective, you can appeal to it. Put another way, casting organizational opportunities in a light that allows each generation to bring their unique perspective and ability to the table isn’t manipulative, it’s an inclusive and effective way to allow everyone to make a contribution in a manner that’s aligned with their generational goals and aspirations.

Using a technique that we call co-mentoring we’ve developed a mechanism that engages senior executives, middle managers and junior employees within cross-generational and cross-functional teams to combine their unique generational perspectives to interpret market opportunities via ‘trend dossiers’ that are received and resolved on a monthly basis. While we’ve recently cited articles that make reference to “reverse mentoring” the reality is that no single generation holds the keys to success. Expecting that you can succeed by simply drawing a revised and refreshed worldview out of Millennial underlings is a little egocentric and misses out on bi-directional generational opportunities. The advantage of co-mentoring is that each generation learns something: Boomers and Xers come to understand how those living on the front lines of societal change are decoding the world around them, while Millennials come to understand how those at the top of the organization process information, make strategic decisions and rally organizations to change. When each distinct generation combines their talents and shares their goals, organizations rise to greater success.

We’ll be sharing some individual case studies with you over the coming weeks of clients that have engaged in this process, hoping to inspire you to end the generational warfare that is sapping productivity and reducing employee satisfaction within your organization. There’s a bigger opportunity here—let’s seize it together.