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Gen Y has been part of the workforce for more than a decade and, in four years, will constitute half of all workers; yet the generational conflict their arrival stirred up is still wreaking havoc on many organizations. Why? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because of our differences. It’s because of our insecurities.

According to a new report by researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC), generational stereotypes are unfounded – at least scientifically. While we may have different communication styles, interests and methods, we think about work in the same terms. We share the same motivators, commitment levels and desire for opportunities. And we have the same perceptions of leadership, organizational climate and work attitudes. “Stereotypes limit contributions of people of all ages and organizational levels,” the report says, “and can hurt collaboration, production, workplace relationships and individual self-perception.” Quoting a 2011 Achieve Global survey, researchers conclude, “It’s not generational difference: it’s ageism.”

You won’t get any arguments from Chris, a young, Australian man who shared with me the following story:

I recently participated in a do-it-yourself workshop at a major hardware chain, and a young staff member came in and turned on the TV. When the host asked why, he said that the boss told him to do so. “But we don`t need it,” said the host. The younger guy shrugged and left. He truly seemed at a loss as to why he was doing it; he wasn`t being cheeky. 

There was only one other course participant – a Boomer, like our host. He asked, “Who’s he?”

The host replied, “He`s smart a**.” 

“Oh yeah,” said the other participant, “one of these whizz-bang kids who thinks he can change the world in five minutes.” The host agreed. I didn’t say anything but I felt disgusted.

Chris then put his finger on exactly what was going on here: “I think [generational conflict] stems from the insecurity some seasoned professionals feel … that somehow their positions or status will become redundant or diminished because of the ‘whizz-bang kids`.”

I agree. When seasoned professionals are worried that they haven’t done enough with their careers or will soon be outdated, they are likely to resent younger workers. They may come across as cocky and all-knowing, but in reality, they’re just afraid they’re not good enough. On the flip side, young pros have their own insecurities to contend with – uncertainty about the future, a lack of mentors and training, and having to hear seasoned pros say how much harder it was for them and how their expectations are too high. No wonder the generations are still butting heads!

Now, let’s pretend for a moment that these two hardware-store employees saw themselves as valuable contributors to the long-term success of the organization. All it takes is one leader with a clear and compelling vision, and who can communicate it in a way that everyone feels needed and valued. With a common vision for everyone to rally around, people stop criticizing each other because of their differences and start looking for ways to capitalize on the unique assets each person brings to the team.

Yet, very few companies have a clear, compelling and consistently-communicated vision. In fact, many leaders delegate this task – one responsibility that should never be handed off! Insecurity soon takes over their offices, and employees end up battling over who works harder, had it harder or knows how to do it best.

Want to get the most out of every person on your team? Clarify your vision, create a plan and make sure every individual has an opportunity to stand out. That way, when some “whizz-bang kid” comes along, you’ll be ready to share everything you know. After all, when you get promoted for being a rock-star leader, you’ll need someone capable of taking your place.  

Rock on,

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations and Hidden Heroes