Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Age-old Problem: Stereotyping Creates Generational Workplace Tension


Guest post by Sharon Daniels, CEO, AchieveGlobal.

(This post focuses on AchieveGlobal’s study about age-based stereotypes in the workplace, and its report “Age-Based Stereotypes: A Major Cause of Intergenerational Tension.” The complete report is available online.)

It’s natural, our tendency to organize ideas into mental boxes. It’s the way we make sense of the world. It’s how we sort our surroundings. But it’s not always productive or correct, especially when these assumptions are about co-workers.

In our study on age-based stereotypes in the workplace, AchieveGlobal found that despite a prevalence of articles and commentary on the topic, there is little solid science supporting the well-known assumptions on age and employee behavior. Instead, these stereotypes appear to be rooted in generalization from too few examples, biased research methods and widespread prejudice toward older and younger employees.

The study found that though people are more generally aware about the dangers of ageism, employees of all ages, levels and regions still revert to age stereotypes. Particularly alarming was this trend: the higher the organizational role, the more likely it is that someone will endorse popular age stereotypes. The truth is, when we characterize an individual based on the age group he or she represents, the stereotypes we accept at face value often lead to discrimination and decreased productivity.

To prevent diversity and productivity issues, it’s important to remember that we need to treat people as individuals, focusing on needs we all share. Regardless of their age, all employees seek respect, competence, connection and some degree of autonomy.

Ensuring that employees of varying ages work together is a simple way to help prevent ageism. The study identified five best practices for collaborating across generations:

1. Challenge Stereotypes: Move past labels and understand each person’s unique experiences, preferences, and interests.

2. Find Common Ground: Invest time discovering what you share—needs, goals, interests, points of view—with individuals from other generations.

3. Find the Talents in Everyone: Respectfully ask about the abilities and experience of others to enhance their sense of competence and encourage them to contribute to a shared effort.

4. Mix it Up. Working across generations helps realize the tremendous value of diverse perspectives, which often spark creativity and innovation. Make sure to partner with those of different generations often.

5. Expect a Lot: Low expectations due to age stereotyping wreak many forms of havoc, in particular the self-fulfilling prophecy. Expect more to get more.

Our hope is that companies will find ways to remove these harmful blind spots. The long-term success of any organization depends on contributions from employees of all ages. Employees who apply these practices to see one another as they really are, not as stereotypes, can help support a motivating, collaborative and productive workplace.

Do you find that age stereotyping is relevant in your workplace? Do you think you’re unfairly judged based on the year you were born? I would love to hear your stories on how prevalent age-based stereotyping is in your office.

The multiphased AchieveGlobal study evaluated generational research since 1985 and collected current data from leaders and employees through focus groups and an international survey. For more information and to access the complete study (“Age-Based Stereotypes: Silent Killer of Collaboration and Productivity”), visit http://www.agestereotypes.com/.

4 comments:

Tim G said...

It's interesting that, with all of the advances in thinking related to diversity, generational thinking seems to be stuck on oversimplified stereotypes.

I'd like to see more people try to leverage generational diversity the same way they try to leverage global diversity.

Eagle's Flight said...

Couldn't agree more! Great post!

Tamara Vann said...

This is excellent advice that is all too often overlooked. The fact of the matter is workers of all ages can contribute greatly to a company and its customers. As this article (http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-mindset/make-the-shift-from-me-to-we) points out, companies need a “we” atmosphere to really serve. When stereotypes get in the way, the “we” gets lost in the shuffle and customers ultimately suffer.

Sra V Marcano said...

This is a great article on generational stereotypes. I addressed this topic in my Leadership and Organization Behavior course. In my department, as well as the previous department I have worked in at this same organization, I must say that we are privileged to experience diversity in the teams that we are divided into. Even when we came into the department as the "new hire" group, the disparity in age was apparent.

I consider myself to be in the middle at 46, but my deskmate is a mature employee. It is important that people learn to associate with people of various cultures, races, classes, generations in order to expand our minds and experience a continuum in learning and personal growth.