3 Strategies to Bridge Generational Divides at Work
In a recent conversation with the HR leader of a Midwestern U.S.–based financial services company, she told us that older employees were confounded by the views and behaviors of Millennial and Gen Z employees, such as their insistence on remote working, “fickle” work styles, and unbridled honesty when work wasn’t going their way. Conversely, the younger set found the company veterans to be inflexible, uncreative, and often naïve in their willingness to take company leaders’ word at face value.
These differences were exacerbated by the organization’s hierarchical culture, where senior employees — who were invariably older — had their own meetings, their own wings of the office, and their own client relationships. And when intergenerational collaboration did take place, the more tenured colleagues dominated the conversation. The result? Disengaged younger workers, stagnant older workers, and poorer, less-comprehensive solutions for clients. As much as senior executives touted the ability to attract next-generation workers as evidence of the company’s growth and appeal, mid-level managers groaned at all the friction it created.
Generational disconnect is an ages-old problem. But for the first time ever, we now have five generations in the workforce. And the consequences of this disconnect are more severe in this post-Covid era: Company leaders are balancing the call for more purposeful work from their employees with ever-increasing performance demands to succeed in their markets. Sometimes it seems these two forces are diametrically opposed, causing leaders to favor performance over purpose or pay superficial attention to the company’s proclaimed mission.
Based on our combined decades of academic and applied research as well as our hands-on experience inside and advising some of the world’s most progressive companies, we’ve learned that bringing together different age cohorts fosters a shared sense of purpose in a company, as well as better business outcomes. Companies that capitalize on friction between generations and use it to spark creativity flourish by instilling a sense of purpose across their whole employee base, innovating faster, and forging stronger bonds with their customers.
The Problem and Promise of Age Diversity
Because it’s so observable in the way people look and talk, age diversity makes people especially prone to “us-versus-them” thinking. It’s human nature to trust and affiliate with people whom we perceive to be part of our “in-group.” Leaders need to actively foster a common identity and understanding across generations so that people are more likely to appreciate and include people of different ages. Investing in understanding others’ different points of view creates common knowledge, which is the cornerstone of effective collaboration: It gives a group a frame of reference, allows them to interpret situations and decisions correctly, helps people understand one another better, and greatly increases efficiency.
Nevertheless, we also find that smart, well-intentioned people often fail to make the most of age diversity because they don’t know how to strategically manage these differences. Leaders create project teams with people of diverse ages, invite everyone to holiday potlucks, and create common spaces where they’ll ideally cross paths and brainstorm. But this type of laissez-faire approach doesn’t work because the differences are more obvious than the benefits.
Here are three approaches that help people not only see the value in age differences, but also use that diversity to boost employee retention and productivity, innovate more consistently, and deepen customer relationships.
Build and Capitalize on a Shared Sense of Purpose
A survey by McKinsey underscored the renewed importance of purpose: Nearly two-thirds of U.S.-based employees said that Covid-19 had caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And Millennials were three times more likely than others to say they were reevaluating the type of work they do because of the pandemic. According to one senior executive at an educational software company we spoke with, “Our senior managers are repeatedly flabbergasted when a Millennial pushes back and says, ‘Why should we spend time on this if it doesn’t contribute to social justice?’”
In our work with dozens of global companies across industries, we’ve found that leaders who recognize and act intentionally to bridge this generational gap are much more likely to foster a more cohesive, energized workforce. Hold town hall meetings that put people in mixed-generation groups (of around six to eight people) and have them answer a set of questions about purpose together. Center the questions on linking one’s personal purpose with the corporate purpose so employees can see how they and their work contribute to it. For example: “What is most important to you in your day-to-day life? How does this tie into your work at our company?”
What we’ve seen emerge from these facilitated sessions is that people have more similar values than they initially thought. More often than not, you’ll hear responses like “family,” or “a sense of personal and professional growth,” and “making the world a better place.” This shifts into a conversation about how these priorities can be supported at work, helping people across generations feel heard and more engaged — a prerequisite to staying with the company and being a productive contributor. Highly meaningful work equates to a 69% reduction in one’s likelihood to leave their company in the next six months and generates an additional $9,078 per worker per year.
Use Team Launches to Highlight How Differences Matter
A shared sense of purpose among age groups unites and motivates. But differences among these cohorts should also be embraced and harnessed — for example, when a new team is just getting off the ground. The best teams have a mandatory kickoff meeting for every project, even if team members have already worked together. This way, they can get on the same page about each person’s expertise, including the advantages they offer as a result of their age, tenure at the company, and life and professional experiences. For teams that don’t do project-based work, leaders should find time to periodically hold “re-kick” meetings. Triggers might be the new budget season, an annual strategy review, or when new people join the team.
Have each team member create a scorecard at the start of a new project to outline their potential contributions on the basis of their specific perspective. For example, Tina, a Baby Boomer, cites her decades of experience serving such-and-such clients, while Bernie, a Millennial, notes all the productivity software he’s proficient in using. These scorecards form the foundation for the team kickoff meetings, ensuring that pertinent knowledge is unearthed and acknowledged. So instead of relying on who speaks loudest or most eloquently, members have a default reaction: “Who owns this this knowledge?”
To make sure age-related (and other) differences continue to be leveraged, we recommend that a director or senior manager assign the most trusted person (that is, the person most likely and able to have the best interests of all team members in mind) on the team to be the project’s coordinator. Their responsibility is to understand each person’s potential and see that it’s brought to bear. This means comparing reality to expectations, and when there’s a gap, figuring out why. Then, the fusion of contributions — by the right people at the right time, which we refer to as “smarter collaboration” — should spark innovation and customer delight. This leads to higher revenue and profit, deeper customer relationships, and a more profound sense of purpose and accomplishment among teammates. For example, one division of a tech company restructured its team approach with more intergenerational collaboration and had them create a team purpose. Post-implementation, they outperformed other divisions with higher team satisfaction and extremely satisfied clients.
Launch and Sustain a Reverse Mentoring Program
To forge even stronger ties between ages and generations, we recommend a reverse mentoring program. Reverse mentoring is when a more junior employee mentors someone more senior than they are. These programs can help senior executives or managers become more sophisticated about topics like social media, collaboration (younger people tend to work better on teams), work-life balance, and troubleshooting technology issues.
As the older group gains knowledge in these areas, they can develop a greater understanding of their younger counterparts’ working styles and preferences. And they can become more self-reflective and open to change. For example, instead of wondering, “Why don’t these people want to forge relationships with us in the office?” they might start to question, “Why don’t I try to bring balance into my life by working from home when it makes sense?”
The mentor also benefits from a boost to their confidence and communication skills. There will inevitably be some give and take between them and their mentee, helping them see their more tenured colleague in a more human and multidimensional light. With that said, it’s important that this type of program be opt-in for both mentors and mentees and that the pairs are well matched based on what they’re interested in teaching and learning.
Once the mentoring relationship is over (typically after six or 12 months), a human resources director or manager should assess what progress was made and how can it be leveraged to benefit the larger company. This evaluation is a huge opportunity to boost employee morale and further other top strategic outcomes. For example, it might spur a more intergenerational way of tackling client issues that leads to better solutions and relationships. Or it could serve as the basis for a kind of talent academy where each employee periodically teaches about an area of their expertise.
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With five generations in today’s workforce, age diversity is rich and brimming with opportunity. But these differences must be carefully managed — otherwise, perceived divides and barriers can lead to mistrust, contempt, and suboptimal solutions. Leaders can make the most of age and generational differences through fostering a shared sense of purpose in workshop sessions, using team launches as an opportunity to highlight differences, and setting up and sustaining a reverse mentoring program