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The bigger the age gap between managers and employees, the less productive they are, report shows

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Generational warring isn’t just showing itself in the housing market. A new report says the bigger the age gap between managers and employees, the less productive they are. 

While having generational diversity may, on its face, appear to breed creativity and discourse, researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science and business consulting firm Protiviti found that younger generations working with older bosses can actually decrease productivity levels.

“Workers themselves believe that productivity is being lost because they are not working effectively together,” with 25% of employees self-reporting low productivity levels, according to the report. “Productivity is even lower for employees with larger age gaps with their managers.” 

The report says employees with managers more than 12 years older than them are almost 1.5 times as likely to report low productivity levels compared to other employees. LSE and Protiviti pulled data from more than 1,450 employees working in finance, tech, and professional services in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“Despite the clear potential for productivity gains through intergenerationally inclusive work practices, firms continue to miss out due to frictions between employees of different generations negatively impacting productivity,” according to the report.

What’s even more alarming about this report is that productivity levels had already slumped in a big way during and after the pandemic as a result of evolving work environments. Although generation wars—particularly between Gen Z, millennials and baby boomers—have become a more widely recognized phenomenon, experts agree it’s something that employers have long had to deal with. 

“Friction between generations in the workplace is not new,” Carly Holm, founder and CEO of human-resources consulting firm Humani HR, tells Fortune. “It has always been a challenge that leaders have been required to navigate, although the source of friction changes over time.”

And the main source of friction, according to Holm? Communication strategies.

How you’re talking to your employees matters

Millennials: You’ll understand this one. You’ve just sent a thorough and heartfelt Slack message to your boss about a project you’re really proud of—but then they hit you back with the dreaded “ok.” The emotional side of your brain automatically kicks in, sending a shockwave of anxiety through your mind and body. Did I do a bad job? Do they hate me? Reality is, probably not. But different generations have varying communication methods, which can be a major culprit in the intergenerational tensions in the workplace. 

“The reality is that different generations tend to communicate differently,” Holm says. 

Gen Zers and millennials tend to prefer Slack or text messages, while older generations like talking on the phone or in person. “A lot of this has to do with the different technologies that have been prevalent throughout each employee’s career and how they’ve learned to communicate,” Holm says.

And the only way to address that tension is to address the issue head-on, Thomas Roulet, a chaired professor of organizational sociology and leadership at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, tells Fortune.

“It is key to get the prejudice out in the open [like] ‘younger generations are lazy’ and bust those myths,” Roulet says. “Help people better understand other generations’ approach to work, and get to uncover those invisible ways to think about how we interact and conduct tasks in an organization.”

Jenny Woo, a researcher and lecturer at UC-Irvine and CEO of emotional-intelligence consulting firm Mind Brain Emotion, actually coaches Gen X and baby boomer managers in helping them to connect with younger professionals to improve productivity and engagement. The chief complaint she hears from Gen X managers is “their perplexity over what they perceive as Gen Z’s disregard for professionalism and communication, such as refusing to take an 8 a.m. meeting and failing to submit assignments on time,” she says.

On the flip side, Gen Zers and millennials consistently ask Woo to explain how to set boundaries with their older managers. 

“Younger generations experiencing higher stress and mental health challenges find it more difficult to engage effectively with managers from older generations, who may have different approaches to work and communication,” Woo says. “Older managers struggle to adapt to younger employees’ expectations and work habits, and vice versa.”

Experts agree, though, that this intergenerational conflict tends to be isolated to industries that have larger age gaps. This includes professional-services firms (like law, consulting, and audit), as well as tech, consulting, and financial services, which are the industries highlighted in the LSE and Protiviti report. There isn’t as much evidence of this same tension within other industries, at least based on this report and expert commentary.

“Companies traditionally with the ‘up or out’ culture will likely experience generational dissonance and productivity mismatch,” Woo says, meaning firms that have a distinct promotion and advancement process feel the most tension. “Up and out” culture is typical at professional service, finance, and consulting firms.

While the report shows evidence that productivity levels can be affected by generational misunderstandings, Roulet says it can serve as a signal of the potential benefits of having different generations working together—if they can learn to get past communication barriers.

“Large gaps can be more productive as they bring a diversity of opinion, if they can be capitalized in the workplace, and if the culture of the organization encourages perspective taking,” Roulet says.

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