Leveraging the Strengths of Multi-Generational Teams
In 2009, in his seminal book Grown Up Digital, Don Tapscott made a bold claim that the “Net Generation” was going to forge a new way of doing business, emphasizing collaboration and learning over traditional hierarchical structures and authority.
“I’m convinced that the Net Gen culture is the new culture of work,” he wrote, stressing that these new, young workers were bringing valuable assets to the table. Social networking tools, for example, were not to be feared (or banned via the company’s firewall) but embraced as an opportunity for collaboration.
It was ground-breaking research back then, and it helped shift the workplace dynamic.
Today, Tapscott’s “Net Generation” is more broadly referred to as the Millennials. And a new generation – Gen Z – is making its presence known in the working world with new ideas and experiences.
So, for the first time, five generations – the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z – are all working together in workplaces across the United States.
And yes, you guessed it, there are challenges. Younger and older team members don’t always love working together.
But we prefer to focus on the opportunities that present themselves in an age-diverse workforce. We believe that organizations that overcome the obstacles and leverage the strengths of multi-generational teams will be the most successful moving forward.
Four Standards to Promote a Healthy Age-Diverse Workforce
Move Beyond Stereotypes
In 2019, the social media world did itself no favors when “OK, Boomer” became a trending, sarcastic phrase. Why? It proliferated a Millennial and Gen Z stereotype that older generations were out of touch. But the stereotyping goes both ways. In fact, Tapscott worked extremely hard in his book Growing Up Digital to combat the opposite stereotype – the belief of many Baby Boomers that Millennials were lazy and entitled.
So, the first thing everyone has to do is to acknowledge that these subconscious biases exist.
“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,” write Megan W. Gerhardt, Josephine Nachemson-Ekwall, and Brandon Fogel in the Harvard Business Review. “Noticing that we’re making these assumptions is the first step to combating them.”
Watch Your Language
Once you’ve acknowledged these biases, pay attention to how those biases show up in the language you use.
Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, tells the Harvard Business Review that there are certain words that are associated with age cohorts. Check your job descriptions for one, he says. Does a phrase like “fresh perspective” really imply “younger”? Does “experienced” really mean “older”?
Here's why that matters: Is it possible for a more seasoned employee to bring a fresh perspective to a project or a team? Absolutely. Is it possible for a younger employee to have deep experience and understanding of a topic? Also, yes.
It also means being intentional with the terms you use to refer to team members of different generations.
As Nicole D. Smith writes, “Consider the comments, jokes, or labels people use to describe younger and older employees and whether they are microaggressions or are biased or insensitive.”
Consider eliminating terms like “youngster,” “seasoned,” and “newbie,” she writes.
Create a Culture of Learning
An organization will truly thrive when workers of all ages are sitting at the same table. Each person brings unique expertise to the conversation. That means, says Stefanie K. Johnson, associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder, that there’s a great opportunity for everyone to learn from each other.
“When we mix the different strengths and perspectives of younger and older workers, we gain the benefits of diversity of thought,” she writes in Forbes. “While the older workers gain emotional energy by having the opportunity to share their views with and teach the next generations, younger workers report greater engagement as a result of learning from their older colleagues.”
This isn’t a new idea. Tapscott championed this concept more than a decade ago as he quoted the words of John Seely Brown: “What you find in leading organizations today is that each one of us is, in some way, an authority in some domains and a student in other domains. We must be prepared to learn major things from our subordinates and vice versa.”
So, instead of a traditional “mentoring” relationship, where the older employee takes a young colleague under his wing, think more of a mutually beneficial partnership.
And here’s the fun thing: Research has shown that workers of all ages are motivated by learning. The more you can create opportunities for team members to learn from each other, regardless of age, the more satisfaction everyone will get from the experience.
Look for Similarities and Common Goals
What happens if your age-diverse team isn’t gelling the way that you’d hoped it would? Try encouraging team members to focus on their similarities.
“We are more likely to empathize with people if we identify with them in some way,” writes Amy Gallo in the Harvard Business Review. “Rather than emphasizing (even in your own mind) all the ways you’re dissimilar from your colleague, find ways to show them you’re alike.”
Gerhardt, Nachemson-Ekwall, and Fogel add that encouraging team members to find shared ground is key to success.
“While it may seem counterintuitive to focus on commonalities when the goal is to leverage differences, team members must first see themselves as collaborators on a joint mission, rather than competitors,” they write. “Furthermore, research shows that having a common purpose and goals are vital to team performance.”
So, yes, Tapscott was on to something back in 2009. Age-diverse teams are indeed an asset within any organization. By moving beyond the generational stereotypes and adjusting the language used, teams will be able to work toward a collective goal and learn from each other to truly thrive.
“By mobilizing the collective knowledge, capability, and resources embodied within broad networks of participants, smart firms can accomplish great things,” Tapscott wrote.
We wholeheartedly agree.