I’m always thrilled to see articles addressing age-based stereotypes in the workplace, not only those that mischaracterize 50+ women and men but also those that lump all Millennials together, or all Gen X’ers. Haydn Shaw, at Huffington Post, offers some useful advice and perspective on how multiple generations can get along better in the workplace.
The gist of his article is to not make assumptions, particularly those rooted in generational stereotypes. Finding out why a coworker does something that is frustrating or confusing can lead to understanding and, if necessary, compromise.
As someone who works with trends, especially those related to particular generations, I can understand the difficulty of navigating the gray area between generational tendencies and stereotypes. The key is to understand that trends for a group apply only when discussing the group as a whole. When dealing with individuals, you have to take them on their own terms, not assume they follow the patterns of the group.
The learning styles approach in education has some useful applications for the workplace. Within a group of kids all the same age, we find vast differences in how they approach learning. Some need visual input to fully understand a concept, and some work best with the written word. Others learn and express themselves best by talking with others face to face. These are just a few of the styles of learning that apply, but you can see how they might affect our workplace habits.
The workplace is a place of learning and application of that learning. Habits that may seem incomprehensible to you could very well be rooted in how that person learns best. Understanding this can lead to better communication as well as solutions that enable everyone to do their best work.
For example, if you learn best by talking with others, it can be difficult to understand why your coworker sends emails about everything, even small issues that could more easily (to you) be taken care of in a quick conversation. When you both look at this from the perspective of learning styles, you’ll both be less likely to insist on your own preferred mode of communicating and perhaps come up with a compromise, such as email followed by periodic conversations to check understanding.
If you lead a multigenerational workplace or are a solopreneur working with people of multiple generations, I highly recommend a proactive approach. Read up on learning styles and even Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory and try to incorporate various options and strengths in your regular communication and output. This can be especially useful as a way for people to occasionally try out styles that aren’t their strongest. As long as they feel safe to make mistakes doing something in a way that’s not as comfortable, they will surprise you with new insights and perspectives that wouldn’t have come out if they’d continued thinking inside the box.
Conversely, leading with your strengths and enabling others to lead with theirs will create an environment in which everyone feels valued and has the opportunity to experience success. This experience motivates us all to continue striving for more success, especially when we feel valued as part of a team.
Another important step is to focus on common values shared among colleagues of multiple generations. Having conversations about values and even aspirational visions—for one’s self, the company, the community, and even the world—and keeping these commonalities front and center can motivate everyone to celebrate and leverage diversity in service of collaboration toward common values, goals, and visions.
Intergenerational cooperation is a necessity not only in the workplace but in our communities as a whole, particularly as both get more diverse in multiple ways. The sooner we all learn to understand and work with diversity (in age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) on its own terms rather than seeing it as something to fix or as a source of frustration, the sooner we can transcend the ordinary requirements of our jobs or businesses and achieve the extraordinary—the visionary—together.
Image Credit: Flickr, by Ho John Lee