WIT Asia Summit: improving communication and productivity in multigenerational teams

Professor of Leadership Megan Gerhardt shares how to create happy and productive multigenerational teams

Women are doing well in the Asian tech sector, with South-East Asia boasting more women tech workers than the global average, according to 2020 figures. Yet, more women in tech alone aren’t the answer to building a more diverse, inclusive, and innovative tech workforce; we need to get more diverse generations into work, including multigenerational teams.

Like other forms of diversity, age and generational diversity bring different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives to teamwork that can improve decision-making and business productivity. The benefits of age diversity in the workplace were recently discussed during the Women in IT Asia Summit in a talk called ‘creating a collaborative and multigenerational workforce’, hosted by Megan Gerhardt, Professor of Leadership at the Farmer School of Business, Miami.

Gerhardt first realised the importance of learning from people of different ages when she became an academic professor aged 26. After that, she realised how little age diversity was valued in workplaces when she became a business consultant.

Businesses are mishandling multigenerational workforces

Despite most businesses in the world having a multigenerational workforce, she discovered that a “negative lens” was applied to different generations working together, with many firms not bothering to help them work together effectively. Her workplace experiences are backed up by a 2020 Deloitte Insights study which found that only 6% of organisations “strongly agree” that their leaders are able to lead a multigenerational workforce.

Gerhardt explains how teams from different generations can experience “frustration” when working together. This is because different generations have different understandings of “what is correct”. This, she says, goes back to peoples’ formative growing-up years, which take place between the age of five and 20 and is influenced by factors including parenting styles, global trends and events that impact “internalised values and norms.”

These factors then impact “what it means to be successful” and how educated you think you should be. This all lends to “resulting behaviours and attitudes”, which are the “things we see in the workplace that create frustration.”

Gerhardt outlines the roadblocks that prevent harmonious multigenerational working: generational shaming and stereotyping, age bias for younger and older workers, myths about value differences, and knowledge relevance.

For those seeking a solution, Gerhardt asks employers to focus on ‘Gentelligence’ or “the collective intelligence that comes from intergenerational learning and collaboration; and seeing generational diversity as an opportunity rather than a threat.”

Creating a happy (and productive) multigenerational workforce

But how to achieve multigenerational harmony? Firstly, employers must remember that we all have “universal needs” regardless of generation. These include respect, connection, autonomy, and competence.

Gerhardt recommends that employers look at generation as a form of diversity and inclusion and outlines the following strategies to create better workplace collaboration.

  1. Resist assumptions – push back on implicit biases and the tendency to draw automatic conclusions based on generational stereotypes. Instead, increase awareness, think about and listen for assumptions about age in your workplace. They are so prevalent that we often don’t notice them. An example is not offering new training for older workers soon to retire, as many older workers will work a lot longer today due to economic conditions and should be allowed the chance to learn.
  2. Adjust the lens- work to identify the intent and interest behind the attitudes and actions of those from other generations. Test your assumptions to see if they are accurate or not. Such as younger people taking their phones out during meetings, are they not concentrating, or are they using them to take notes? Ask them, “can you help me to understand” to bridge the gap.
  3. Build trust- foster an environment where everyone, regardless of age, focuses on shared interests and feels welcome to share ideas as well as ask for help. People can feel vulnerable doing things they’re uncomfortable with, such as using new workplace technology and are unsure about asking for help. Psychological safety and comfort are essential, such as normalising asking someone younger, for example, for help without feeling less competent or shame. Leadership can empower younger staff by asking, “how would you do that?” Focus on reaching the shared goal. You’re learning and making others, including less senior staff, feel respected.
  4. Expand the pie – reject the notion that generations are in competition and seek ways to leverage complementary knowledge for collaborative gain. Avoid the “mine and your mentality.” Let others have a piece of the pie, share expertise, and let others contribute. It builds trust and results in the great benefits of multigenerational collaboration and diversity of thought.

Gerhardt concludes that without these strategies in place, multigenerational teams will struggle to work collaboratively and productively. The benefits of embracing collaborative multigenerational working include more innovation, adaptability to change and higher performance. It also means more access to different information networks, the ability to learn from each other, and retention of talent across career stages in an organisation. And who wouldn’t want all that in a business?

To find out more about the ‘Women In IT’ Summit and Awards Series, click here.

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