Navigating generational assumptions in the workplace can feel like an impossible, ongoing challenge.
Cultural differences, a gulf in technological know-how, even subtle differences, such as speaking patterns, can make it difficult for each to see the value in the other and work together.
But after decades of working with myriad companies and employees of many ages and backgrounds, I’m convinced that we have more to gain than to lose from each other.
People of different generations are sometimes intimidated by one another. And that can lead to judgment and assumptions.
Often, this is simply the result of a lack of exposure. If we dive into cross-generational relationships in the workplace, with humility and the expectation that we have much to learn, our companies will become rich places of learning, enthusiasm, and innovation.
Here are 3 ways to beat back assumptions and encourage cross-generational collaboration.
Look past the policy
It’s important for your company to be in compliance, but make sure that’s not the only thing you’re doing to combat ageism.
Instead of simply meeting the letter of the law, identify the assumptions that generational groups have about one another and the implicit biases that drive everything from hiring to water cooler talk. Actions such as assigning employees of different generations to work on a project together can help bridge the gap.
Or consider implementing a cross-generational mentoring program to help expose people of different generations to one another beyond hellos in the hallway. Mentoring programs have been found to increase productivity, strengthen your succession structure, and increase employee engagement and retention.
Own up to stereotypes–even of yourself
Tired labels–that older workers can’t learn new technology, for instance, or that younger workers have little company loyalty–are damaging and simply not true. But they are deeply ingrained in us, driven by media portrayals of people instead of personal, real-world experience.
Help your employees acknowledge the stereotypes they have about one another through trainings and regular follow-ups.
And encourage people in your company to ditch any false age-based narratives they believe about themselves. That’s just playing into the problem. Instead, encourage people to explore what new things they can learn from colleagues.
Replace false labels with generous ones
People of all generations can help break down barriers by creating new, positive labels.
Older workers don’t see themselves as “old;” Younger workers don’t see themselves as “young.”
If employees can put themselves in each others’ shoes, they can become more aware of how people in another generation perceive themselves and start appreciating their strengths.
Instead of seeing older employees as out-of-touch or slow, younger employees can challenge the narrative by recognizing older workers’ years of experience, which often leads to strong interpersonal skills, a tendency to be inclusive, negotiation skills, and the ability to effectively advocate for an idea. They are also financially savvy and good at looking at the big picture.
Instead of seeing younger employees as flighty, disloyal or self-absorbed, older workers can recognize that younger employees have insights into diversity and privilege that are extremely valuable to the workplace, are highly entrepreneurial, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers and savvy with today’s essential skill of developing a personal brand.
All employees can learn to work together by adopting an attitude of flexibility and humbleness. Take direction or learn tech skills from someone half your age. Go to someone who’s been in your office for 20 years for advice on how to handle a difficult client or sticky workplace relationship.
Instead of buying into the story that you have nothing to gain from each other, start a mental checklist of the ways each of your colleagues can help and contribute–regardless of age.