multigenerational coworkers sitting at table together

How to Lead Across Generations

One nonprofit struggled to get older and younger leaders to meet eye to eye. Managing conflict means knowing pressure points—and anticipating disagreement.

Association leaders who are mindful of diversity on their staff and boards are obligated to think about age and experience as much as any other factor. Different generations have different perspectives, insights, and priorities that are meaningful to an organization’s success. 

But building consensus across generations can be tricky.

Case in point: Earlier this month, the two founders of a nonprofit dedicated to seating gen Zers on boards in Maine published a report on how their effort imploded in spectacular fashion. In “Learning From an Intergenerational Blowup Over Social Justice,” published earlier this month by Stanford Social Innovation Review, Steve Kaagan and John Hagan explain how miscommunication and differing perspectives undermined their good-faith effort.

A key issue, they explain, was the distinction between how different generations perceived the importance of social-justice issues. While older leaders might be welcoming toward the topic, “welcoming” may not be enough for younger leaders, for whom it may be “all encompassing.” Kaagan and Hagan describe being blindsided on that front—and from there, watching various camps degrade into OK Boomer-versus-woke-mob stereotyping. 

Participants should clarify at the outset deeply held values likely to affect the project.

To get ahead of these schisms, they write, organizers need to be better at communicating on both the front and back end, addressing how conversations will be handled before they happen, and how inevitable conflicts will be addressed. To start, leaders should know going in what values they’re prioritizing—and, by extension, whether the people they bring on understand and share them. 

“Project participants should clarify at the outset of their work together deeply held values likely to affect the project,” they write. “Best to examine project values first, then move on to individual values. Being explicit about differences and similarities in values could forestall conflict later.”

It could forestall conflict, but it likely won’t eliminate it. And in some ways, you want that conflict—you want some of those values stress-tested, to see if they’re appropriate for your organization’s goals. But you also don’t want squabbles and accusations. The writers recommend establishing mechanisms for disputes that are thorough and acceptable, but “not so cumbersome and time-consuming as to detract from project momentum.”

It’s worth the effort, because the conflict can be pervasive. According to an Addison Group survey cited in a report from SHRM last month, 35 percent of workers say “their company’s culture and processes favor one generation over others.” The article includes some helpful tips for how groups from different generations can find common ground around technology, team-building, and leadership. But success ultimately boils down to a conversation about what matters most to the people in the room. 

Which means leaders may want to think about what they value before people enter their boardrooms and offices. “To be able to move forward together, we need to understand not just what the other person thinks, but why they think what they think and how they see acting on their values in the workplace,” Kaagan and Hagan write. It’s common-sense advice, and worth the difficult conversations needed to bring those differences to light before they become fractures.

What do you do to encourage intergenerational diversity at your association? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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