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Will Gen Z usher in a new generation of work-related conflict?

Written by Global Marketing at The Myers-Briggs Company. 4 min read.


Awareness of different approaches to conflict could help multi-generational workforces understand each other and work together better.

Millennials, also known as Generation Y, prize flexibility and purpose over a pay check and are forcing Generation X and Baby Boomer leaders to rethink the nature of work—an effort compounded by the fact that many workplaces are virtual for the foreseeable future.

But do the lessons we’ve learned and changes we’ve made represent a permanent cultural shift? Or will the next generation, soon to enter the workforce in droves, be as perplexing to Gen Y as Gen Y is to older generations?

There are signs that Gen Z, born between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, is quite different. According to Jonah Stillman, co-author of Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace, “We see a lot of leaders look at someone young and assume we are all the same. Even more so, it is natural to look at someone from my generation and assume we are Millennials. The mistake is to then treat us like Millennials.”

Just as Gen X starts to figure out Gen Y, along comes a generation that confounds both Gen X and Gen Y. And with the mixed expectations of four distinct generations—who’ve all made severe and abrupt changes due to Covid-19—comes new sources of work-related conflict.

Conflict comes in five flavors

Conflict exists in all human relationships and plays an important role at work where ideas, styles, and goals collide. Conflict becomes more complicated when you can’t read body language or tone while working remotely. Leaders must ensure that conflict leads to productive energy and innovation, not breakdown, by gaining a knowledge of the generational differences that might spark conflict and the fundamental ways people approach it.

Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a framework—the TKI® assessment—for understanding conflict based on five ‘modes.’ People tend to favor certain modes, and by understanding these preferences, teams can be better equipped to address disagreements. The five modes are:

      • Competing. You’re in it to win, achieving your own objectives at another’s expense.
      • Collaborating. You’re still in it to win, but you do it in a way that aims to satisfy both your own and the other person’s needs—you’re looking for the win-win solution.
      • Avoiding. You avoid conflict altogether.
      • Accommodating. You yield and satisfy the other person’s or the group’s concern at the expense of yours.
      • Compromising. You moderate the situation to find a solution that partially, but not completely, satisfies both parties.


Conflict is highly situational

While no mode is better than another, the effectiveness of each varies by situation. In today’s business where collaboration is a buzzword and virtual is the new norm, it may be tempting to assume that Collaborating is the unequivocal best mode of managing conflict. However, a closer examination shows that it depends on the circumstances.

The assertive and uncooperative Competing approach might seem dated, but it may be necessary at times. If a decision must be made immediately, there may not be time to pull all parties to the table and collaborate. Similarly, if you’re promoting a position you know to be mission-critical, you may need to compete to avoid a disastrous outcome.

Collaborating is effective when mobilizing a group for long-term change or getting full commitment from multiple parties. Compromising is similar but is best in less critical situations where your integrity isn’t at stake, and an agreement needs to be made quickly. Accommodating involves yielding to someone else’s idea of how it should be done, so it may not sound appealing. But if the long-term relationship is more important than a short-term outcome, or you need to demonstrate goodwill, it may work best. Avoiding conjures images of a doormat, but if you need to cool off and collect your thoughts, or if the conflict isn’t worth the effort, it may be best. Avoiding doesn’t mean forever, and sometimes postponing the conflict to a later date is ideal.


Gen Z may represent a move from collaborating to competing

How does this play out between generations? First, conflict style is an individual thing, so anyone of any generation may gravitate toward any mode. Additionally, any conflict mode can be used in person or virtually. With that said, generational experience, as well as age, influence one’s approach to conflict.

Millennials were raised largely by Baby Boomers who grew up in relative prosperity and they may share their sky-is-the-limit attitude. This may partially explain the emphasis on meaning and lifestyle over money, and certainly meshes with the idealization of a collaborative work culture.

Gen Z may be a different story. Stillman notes, “Where Millennials were raised by self-esteem building, optimistic Boomers, we were raised by tough-love, skeptical Xers. At a young age, we were told by our Xer parents that there are winners and losers, and that more often than not, you lose. In addition, we grew up during the Great Recession, so we’re pragmatic, independent and in survival mode when it comes to looking at our future careers.”

It may be wise to prepare for a generation leveraging the Competing mode more than we’re used to from young people.


Conflict modes are not set in stone

Will work be a perpetual battleground? Once people are aware of how they tend to approach conflict, and that other approaches may be more effective, they can start to engage the situation in the most productive mode instead of defaulting to the most familiar approach. If Gen Z employees are trained to recognize their natural inclination toward a conflict mode, they can decide whether that mode is best for the situation and adapt their behavior.

Likewise, older workers can better recognize when a conflict is being managed by a less desirable mode and manage the situation for a better outcome. Without this education, the workplace of the future—now complicated by more people working from home than ever before—may very well turn into a battle zone.


This article was written by Sherrie Haynie, Sr. Director of US Professional Services at The Myers-Briggs Company, and first published by Forbes Coaches Council, April 2022.

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