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Managing conflict in the intergenerational library workplace

Sara Holder, University of Illinois Library, and Amber Lannon, Carleton University | July 29, 2019

Managing conflict in the intergenerational library workplace

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash



Conflict is inevitable in any workplace, and libraries are no exception. In fact, the team-based duties, close working quarters, and customer service focus of our work contribute to the potential for conflict among library colleagues. Some of the factors that can cause conflict—communication, working style preferences, tolerance for change, and feelings about work-life balance—may be similar within a generational cohort but can vary substantially across these broad age groups. For managers who lead intergenerational teams, an understanding of these differences can help them promote healthier relationships among team members and deal more effectively with conflict when it arises.


In today’s library workplace we have participation from four generations, which are represented in the table below.  These generations’ differing attitudes toward work and communication styles can cause conflict, particularly when members of different generations work together on the same team or project.



While this is useful information for a library manager, these traits cannot be universally applied to all members of a generational cohort. It is important to get to know people as individuals. This will allow you to recognize, utilize and acknowledge each team member’s skills and abilities, which will in turn help to build trust within your team.


When conflict does arise, your instinct may be to jump in and resolve it. As much as possible, managers should step back and allow team members to settle their own conflicts. This process can be tough at first, but ultimately it is empowering and strengthens the team. If you do need to intervene, it is important to get to the root of the problem. It may be complex or simple. It can also boil down to miscommunication, which can be amplified by generational differences.  A simple statement like “Let’s agree to finish this ASAP” may not mean the same thing to everyone.  For a baby boomer this might mean “Let’s work around the clock until it’s finished,” but for a millennial it might mean “Let’s finish this as efficiently as possible, taking into consideration all of our commitments.” While everyone may have agreed with the statement initially, differing interpretations can still lead to conflict. 


There are also generational differences in communication preference.  Boomers are accustomed to face-to-face meetings, and millennials may be comfortable with texting and using productivity apps such as Slack and Trello to collaborate and manage projects. If a conflict has arisen, a face-to-face conversation is the best route.


It’s important to note that conflict does not always need to be avoided. If teams or individuals work through conflict with reasoned discussions, it can lead to creative solutions and ensure that the whole team is on board with the final decision.


One strategy for creating more understanding among generations in a library workplace is cross-generational mentoring, where the participants are both mentee and mentor, learning from one another simultaneously. Unlike the traditional mentor relationship of a senior employee mentoring a junior, the individuals need only be from different generations and their place in the hierarchy does not matter. Cross-generational mentoring can also lead to more trust in an organization as people get to know one another as individuals.


In academic libraries, where librarians go through a tenure process, managers should be mindful that pre-tenure individuals may be hesitant to disagree with tenured colleagues. You may need to have one-on-one discussions about team processes and the openness of group conversations. Employees may need coaching from you (or someone else) about how to make their opinions heard without ruffling feathers. Cross-generational mentoring could work well in these situations.


Generational differences may be the cause of conflict or can add to a conflict that stems from another cause. Managers who are aware of generational differences in attitudes toward work and communication can apply this knowledge to help intergenerational teams develop effective strategies to deal with conflict. Cross-generational mentoring can also help team members from different generations find common ground and build trust. If conflict is handled in the right way, it can actually contribute to a team’s overall health.


Sara Holder and Amber Lannon are authors of the book Managing the Multigenerational Librarian Workforce that presents information on the reality of multigenerational workforces in libraries and how to manage expectations and differences. Library Connect is pleased to offer their subscribers a look at the book by offering a complimentary download of the chapter “Managing Conflict” that goes into more detail in defining characteristics of the four generations that are in the workplace today and highlights the areas that may cause conflict in intergenerational work teams.


Download the chapter




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