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If you have friction, discomfort or outright conflict at the office, it can make for a tough — and ineffective — work environment. Many leaders and HR pros assume that the generation gap is a key cause of trouble. But as a matter of fact, conflict has less to do with age or generational differences than it does with clout: who has it and who wants it.

What is clout? Clout includes control, power, authority and position. According to the Center for Creative Leadership’s Jennifer Deal, most conflicts have to do with the natural desire of older people to maintain their clout and the desire of younger people to increase theirs.

Conflict often stems from one group’s notion that it gets to make the rules and that the other group has to follow these rules. In most organizations, older people have set the standard; as long as the younger generation complies, no problem. But of course, younger people bring their own views and experiences to the job and challenge the status quo. As Deal explains, positional authority assigned by the organization only lays the groundwork for who has clout and who doesn’t. Workers then play other cards — age, political acumen, organizational tenure — to increase their clout within the organization. As organizations increasingly promote younger people over older people, elders naturally work to maintain the balance of power — in their favor — by appealing to their greater experience.

At the same time, the younger generation may complain about not being taken seriously or may criticize their elders for being resistant to new ideas or unwilling to embrace technology. Others claim that older people are “out of touch” and therefore less attuned to the client.

So next time there’s trouble at your workplace, don’t assume it’s due to the generation gap — it’s more likely the fight for clout.

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