Working Well With Colleagues of All Ages


A new employee spots the company CEO in the office parking lot. The worker, fresh out of college, waves and hustles over. With a big smile on his face, he plants himself in front of the gray-haired executive and says, "I've been looking for you! I'd like to share some ideas that would be helpful for our organization."


The employee walks away pleased with himself for demonstrating such initiative. The CEO, however, feels insulted. He's not accustomed to that kind of casual treatment, especially from such an unseasoned worker.


Welcome to a real example of the modern multigenerational office. Across the country, baby boomers struggle to manage employees young enough to be their grandchildren. Millennials seek raises from Generation X supervisors reluctant to invest in workers who won't stay long. And no one knows quite what to expect from Generation Z, digital natives whose oldest members are starting to enter the workforce.


It sounds like a recipe for disaster.


"You've got people with different expectations for how they should be managed, rewarded, the speed of promotion, all of those kinds of things," says Bill Driscoll, district president for New England of Robert Half human resources consulting firm. "That adds up to what can be a challenging environment."


But it doesn't have to be. Generational stereotypes don't account for complex individuals, experts say. And if managed well, divergent work philosophies can actually help organizations thrive.


Read on to learn how to work successfully with colleagues of all ages.


Sources of Tension


By now, assumptions about older and younger workers are well-known and widespread.


Baby boomers are more likely to accept hierarchies and commit to companies long term, Driscoll says. They may hesitate to embrace new office technology. They're accustomed to in-person communication, working independently and following a rigid workweek schedule of 40 hours, says Tracey Cekada, associate professor of safety sciences at Indiana University of Pennsylvania: "They pride themselves on working very hard."




Meanwhile, millennials have been much-maligned, accused of disloyalty, laziness and addiction to their smartphones. They prefer to communicate via email, text and tweet. They are good at teamwork and want frequent feedback from supervisors. People ages 20 to 34 do tend to prioritize work-life balance, according to a 2017 U.S. News survey, but that's partly because they recognize that much of their office time is eaten up by inefficiencies, Cekada says.


When it comes to the generational divide, age isn't the only distinguishing factor. Nearly three-fourths of baby boomers are white, compared to only 56 percent of millennials, according to data from Pew Research Center. That means younger workers are more likely than their older colleagues to be racial minorities, adding another potential source of tension to workplace interactions.


They also have different gender expectations: Millennials entered a working world much more accustomed to and accepting of women employees than did baby boomers, especially in professional and managerial roles. Education levels vary, too. Younger workers, especially women, are more likely to have bachelor's degrees than their older colleagues, Pew Research shows. And when young workers are promoted quickly because of their credentials, Cekada says, that can irritate older workers who advanced through the ranks because of their company loyalty.

Seeking Strengths

With so much potential for conflict, working successfully with colleagues of different ages requires adapting an optimistic attitude. After all, members of every generation bring strengths, not just weaknesses, to work.


"I think there's incredible opportunity from the standpoint of different perspectives and different points of view," Driscoll says. "It's another form of diversity, which only makes organizations stronger."


As older adults, baby boomers typically have better vocabularies, decision-making skills and interpersonal skills than younger adults, and they're also better at regulating their emotions, according to Darlene Howard, psychology professor emerita at Georgetown University.


Plus, their years of professional experience are invaluable.


"Older workers hold a great deal of knowledge and skill," says Peter Berg, associate director of the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. "They know about processes."


Millennials might alarm managers with their candor, but even the CEO who was cornered in the parking lot admitted to appreciating "innovative spirit" and ability to "think beyond what is," says Terrence Cahill, associate professor of interprofessional health sciences and health administration at Seton Hall University. Company leaders, he says, have a lot to learn from millennials who are "not encumbered by the ways we've done things in the past."

Using Empathy

So how to reconcile the strengths and weaknesses each generation brings to work? Employ empathy. Cahill compares the modern multigenerational office to a big family celebration, in which the planner pays attention to and accounts for the various preferences of grandparents, aunts, uncles and young children without letting any one relative dictate or dominate.


"If we adopt some of those familial practices within organizations, we'd have increased sensitivity to each other, we'd have increased knowledge and appreciation for each other and we'd begin to work together in ways that we perhaps haven't been as successful with," Cahill says.

To learn more about co-workers of different generations, seek a mentor of a different age, Cahill suggests. Younger workers may benefit by learning about the company's culture and getting feedback about their work, while older workers may benefit from hearing fresh ideas and learning new skills.

Take advantage of work lunches, volunteer events and other opportunities to socialize with and listen to colleagues who have different levels of experience, Driscoll recommends.

"Diversity increases the need for great communication, spending time working as a team and learning from each other," he says. "Often the passion for the organization and the work can become a real bridge for the different groups."

Young employees bursting with new ideas should ask questions before offering opinions, Cahill says. And rather than accosting managers, ask politely for an appointment: "I'd really enjoy the opportunity to talk with you for a few minutes one day, Mr. or Ms. CEO. Would you have time when we could do that?"

If possible, work on an intergenerational team to help transfer knowledge, Berg suggests. Younger workers can document what older workers do and learn from their expertise. Older workers can observe what younger colleagues contribute and help give their work credibility in the organization.


These experiences should provide useful insight about adjusting to colleagues' preferences. That may mean scheduling face-to-face meetings with some co-workers and sending instant messages to others.

Above all, don't stereotype colleagues, no matter their ages.

"Every case is unique," Driscoll says. "We all know plenty of people who are older in years but younger in spirit."


Source: Money/USNews