Capitalizing on Age-Related Diversity

We frequently get questions from organizational leaders about problems that they are experiencing when attempting to integrate younger and older employees.  They know that their older employees are more experienced, but that the younger employees tend to be more knowledgeable about new technology.  They also know that there is often tension between the two groups when change is introduced, with more resistance from older workers to the shift in “the way we have always done it”.  Additionally, younger workers tend to be more risk tolerant than their older counterparts which leads to a higher incident rates among this group.  We have proposed in two recent blogs (“Overcoming Age Stereotypes: Older Workers + Younger Workers = Better Decisions”; and “Protecting Young Workers: Bridging the Age Gap in the Workplace”) that integrating the two cohort groups could easily lead to better decisions, less safety related incidents, and a more effective and rapid transfer of knowledge from older to younger workers.  We also proposed that overcoming the barriers to these outcomes requires an understanding of where stereotypes come from and how they impact daily interactions which can easily lead to the Self-fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) and continued tension between cohort groups.  So here is an approach that we propose can help an organization capitalize on age-related diversity.

  • Step 1:  Determine what age-related stereotypes and skill sets exist within your culture.
    • This process involves initially interviewing a sample of your employees to determine what stereotypes might exist, what skill sets are common to each cohort group and then using that information to develop and conduct a survey of your employees to help target the most impactful stereotypes at play in your organization.
    • The skill set information will be used later when designing and implementing the “Reciprocal Mentoring” program.
  • Step 2:  Implement a “Culture Shift” process to determine the contextual factors that are maintaining the identified stereotypes, while simultaneously training employees to recognize and defend against the SFP.
    • The process of understanding why we have certain stereotypes, what impact those stereotypes can have on our daily interactions, and understanding the costs associated with a negative SFP can set the stage for openness to working together in a mutually respectful and helpful relationship.
  • Step 3:  Train employees in the “Reciprocal Mentoring” process where each employee assists in the transfer of knowledge and skills to the other as appropriate.
    • Most mentoring programs focus on teaching older employees how to mentor younger employees, but these programs fail to recognize the skill sets that younger employees bring that can be of benefit to older employees.  Additionally, creating an environment where there is mutual sharing of knowledge and skill helps to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and openness.
  • Step 4:  Implement an evaluation process to determine the effectiveness of the program.
    • There are various ways to monitor the success of the culture shift including an observation process, surveys, etc.  The important point is that continuous measurement will help ensure that the organization gets the best return on investment.

With an increasingly aging workforce there is an even greater need to create organizational cultures where all ages work together to maximize the performance of each person.  Hoping for this culture is not the answer……actively intervening gives us a much better chance of success!