With intergenerational teams becoming more common in the workplace, tensions between older and younger workers are on the rise. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Megan Gerhardt, Josephine Nachemson-Ekwall, and Brandon Fogel offer four steps to embrace generational differences and make them an asset instead of a liability.
Gerhardt is a professor of management and the director of leadership development at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, Nachemson-Ekwall is the VP of independent compliance and risk management at Citi, and Fogel is a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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The Five-Generation Workforce
According to the authors, five generations are now working together in the U.S. for the first time, including:
- The Silent Generation (1928-1945)
- Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
- Gen X (1965-1980)
- Millennials (1981-1996)
- Gen Z (1997-2012)
However, the different outlooks, attitudes, and behaviors among the various generations of workers can lead to conflicts that limit collaboration, lead to emotional issues, lower team performance, and contribute to employee turnover.
Currently, many companies are trying to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, but only 8% include age as part of their DEI strategy. And of the few organizations that do address age, many "encourage those of different generations to focus on their similarities or to deny the reality of their differences altogether," the authors write.
But "papering over generational differences isn't the answer," according to the authors. Instead, "a better approach is to help people acknowledge, appreciate, and make use of their differences—just as organizations do with other kinds of diversity."
"Age-diverse teams are valuable because they bring together people with complementary abilities, skills, information, and networks," the authors write, and if generational divides are bridged, teams will be able to improve their performance, commitment to an organization, job satisfaction, and employee turnover.
4 steps to boost intergenerational cooperation.
In their book, "Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce," the authors developed a framework for "moving colleagues away from generational conflict and toward a productive embrace of one another's differences." The framework includes four practices, including:
1. Identifying your assumptions
"The assumptions we make about generational groups (including our own) can hold us back from understanding teammates' true selves as well as the skills, information, and connections they have to offer," the authors write. To effectively combat these assumptions, the first step is for people to notice that they're making them in the first place.
Oftentimes, people will have unconscious biases that influence their interactions with others and decision making. To recognize specific age biases and help mediate tension among different generations of workers, the authors recommend doing an "assumption audit."
During an assumption audit, employees will spend a week paying close attention to any age-based assumptions in their daily work. Then, after the week is over, all employees will gather to discuss their observations and how they could be impacting team cohesion, engagement, and performance. After that, follow up meetings can be scheduled to "continue the conversation, ensure accountability, and start building awareness into your everyday work," the authors write.
2. Adjusting your perspective
After identifying age-based assumptions, the next step is to consider why colleagues from different generations may think or behave differently than you do. According to the authors, "[s]tereotypes often cause us to incorrectly attribute differences to age or assume ill intent where there is none."
An activity to help with this step is the "describe-interpret-evaluate" exercise, which can help employees broaden their understanding of one another. First, employees describe a frustration they have with someone from another generation. Then, they think about their first interpretation of the behavior before being challenged to evaluate an alternative interpretation of the behavior.
For example, a nursing manager who identified as a baby boomer said she disliked seeing young patients using their phones in the middle of conversations with health care providers. The nursing manager believed the patients were being rude and not paying attention to their care team.
However, her younger colleagues offered alternative explanations for the behavior, such as the young patients might be taking notes or looking up pharmacy hours to ensure they could get their prescriptions on time. At the same time, the younger workers also realized behavior that was natural to them could seem disrespectful to older peers.
3. Embracing differences among team members
According to the authors, it is important to find "productive differences with your colleagues of other generations and ways to benefit from each other's perspectives, knowledge, and networks."
To do this, teams first need to build trust among their members to ensure that everyone is comfortable sharing new ideas or conflicting information. An activity that can help build trust and reduce competition is an intergenerational roundtable.
These roundtables can be monthly or quarterly meetings where employees are asked for ideas on how everyone can work together more productively and smoothly. During these meetings, employees must be able find a common purpose and mission while also encouraging and respecting different viewpoints.
"By creating a space for team members to discuss how the group functions, managers demonstrate that all perspectives are valued," the authors write.
4. Encouraging mutual learning
"Finally, to fully reap the benefits of intergenerational teams, members must believe that they have something to learn from colleagues in different age cohorts," the authors write. "The ultimate goal is mutual learning: peers of all ages teaching and learning from one another in an ongoing loop."
One way to encourage this learning is through a two-way "mutual mentoring" approach. Through mutual mentoring, both younger and older employees will be able to teach one another new skills or perspectives. In addition, research shows that these programs help employees develop competencies and skills and increase both individual involvement and collective motivation.
Overall, the authors write that intergenerational teams and age diversity are opportunities "to be seized rather than a threat to be managed" particularly as business leaders continue to grapple with new changes to their organizations and the workforce as a whole. (Gerhardt et al., Harvard Business Review, 3/8)