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Addressing Heart or Mind? Managing Age Diversity Properly

How people of different age can make the most of working together

Fabiola Gerpott - November 30, 2020

Tips for practitioners

Demographic change is progressing inexorably. Along with that, the age for retirement is also falling into line. Older people are gradually retiring later, while young people are entering the jobmarket earlier due to quicker school or university qualifications. This means highly heterogeneous age structures for many companies. However, different generations are not always eager to get together at the working place although they could benefit to a large extent from one another. This is the conclusion of the study "Reaching the Heart or the Mind? Test of two Theory-Based Training Programs to Improve Interactions Between Age-Diverse Coworkers". The study shows that two types of interventiontraining at work can help to improve either the personal relationship or the exchange of knowledge between colleagues with a larger diversity in age. Even though many companies advertise the integration and constructive exchange of employees of different generations, this does not mean they do so efficiently and right from the spot.

How to encourage a more productive relationship between young and old

In order to deal realistically with possible difficulties between employees which are 15 or more years apart in age, the authors of the study designed two age diversity training programs: one with an identity-based approach and one with a knowledge-based approach.

The identity-oriented training refers to the participants' self-perception and the perception of others and takes into account that colleagues of different age groups distance themselves from each other.In the worst-case scenario they even develop stereotypes: This may even lead to open conflicts. For example, an older employee may not want to be lectured about his work by a younger one because he assumes that the newcomer lacks professional experience. Conversely, new workers on the job want to prove themselves and apply their skills in practice, possibly assuming that other methods are old-fashioned. This can quickly lead to misunderstandings and resentment.

The knowledge-oriented training approach concerns the knowledge and experience of employees. It is often astonishing how much know-how is available in both generations but is never really talked about. Employees often think that their colleagues are not interested in it or know about it anyway. This has proven to be a source of hidden potential which can be harnessed through training. However, an unprejudiced exchange is a prerequisite.

Many employees do not realize how much they limit their own work by not knowing their colleagues properly or not appreciating or acknowledging their knowledge. At work, this leads to lower productivity and more frequent changes among staff. Finally, getting to know each other better and recognizing similarities should lead to a more productive exchange.  

For the study, 58 groups of two employees from two Swiss companies were trained. The participating pairs of colleagues were equally assigned to identity-oriented training, knowledge-oriented training, or a control group. On the one-day training they were sensitized and trained with lectures, group discussions, and joint tasks.

Conflict management and appreciation through training

Both training programs had a lasting effect but showed different parameters of success for age-diverse cooperation. The participants of the identity-based training approach developed a higher understanding of their age-diverse colleagues, and the participants admitted that they had previously viewed the other group too one-dimensionally. At the same time, colleagues on the training figured out more strongly that both age groups were more similar than they had initially assumed. The training helped to break down barriers between age groups and to contain the development of stereotypes. The participants were able to improve their cooperation and develop a common identity – for their own benefit and for the benefit of their respective company.

The knowledge-oriented training promoted a greater appreciation of the knowledge of the age-diverse colleague, and how useful this knowledge can be for improving one's own performance. After completion of the knowledge-oriented intervention training, the participants passed on their knowledge more often to the other age group.

Tips for practitioners

  • Take realistic examples of the everyday working life into consideration and do not assume that employees of different age groups automatically work as a unit!
  • If age-diverse colleagues are not working together smoothly, figure out what the problem is! Special trainings can help to overcome barriers between colleagues and promote a more constructive exchange.
  • Rely on evidence-based training programs! There is a number of existing trainings where the benefits are questionable. Those are not only expensive, in the worst case they aggravate generational conflicts at the working place.

Literature reference

Co-author of the study

Professor Dr. Fabiola Gerpott

Fabiola Gerpott is an expert for leadership, diversity management and organizational behavior at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. She is committed to ensuring that diversity is valued more highly by managers and employees alike. Her research focus is on age and gender diversity in leadership positions.

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