Author: Sarah Tennyson
Perhaps it was the title of the event “Can’t we all just get along?” Perhaps it was the lure of a fine, free breakfast. But whatever brought 50 people to the SHRM OD and Change SIG event at 8.30am on a rainy Thursday morning, what they got was a lively discussion on the topic of our multigenerational workforce.
We uncovered the stereotypes lurking in our perceptions of different age groups; the words our unconscious bias associates with images of Millennials vs with Older Workers. Even in a room full of HR, OD and psychology experts, every viewpoint was loaded with assumptions.
Many of these beliefs and assertions about different generations are popularized in the press, yet there is scant empirical evidence to support them. One large scale analysis of generational differences in the workplace concludes that less than 2% of the difference in attitudes to work can be attributed to the person’s generation. A meta-analysis of 20 studies found small to moderate differences and inconsistent patterns across generations’ work attitudes. Individual differences, not generational differences, have a far greater effect on attitudes and behavior at work.
With five generations in the workforce for the first time, organizations should be competing to attract and retain the best talent, regardless of age. Yet the structures and processes we still use today are entrenched in a set of assumptions based on a step-by-step career path leading to retirement around the age of 65. OD should be on the forefront of changing our ways of thinking, designing jobs and management practices to fit the workforce we have now, not the one our parents and grandparents had.
Giving and receiving feedback is a prime example of where the beliefs held by each generation about the others don’t stand up to scrutiny. This topic prompted some hot debate and challenged a lot of the biased opinions that flew round the room. What our discussion revealed was that the way we want feedback doesn’t differ by generation; everyone wants specific constructive feedback delivered in a skillful way that is borne of good intentions. One interesting point of note – among the convenience sample of the 50 people at this event, only 5 were interested in receiving feedback using technology (such as real-time feedback apps) and were quick to say that they only wanted this in addition to a real human conversation.
There are real, urgent changes needed in our organizations to make practices work for a multigenerational workforce. For OD professionals, we highlight:
- Adapting policies and processes to accommodate a more diverse, flexible workforce
- Training or re-training mature workers
- Equipping young managers to manage people older than themselves
- Succession planning
- Supporting late-career-stage transitions.
This event attracted a diverse audience; from students studying Masters-level I-O Psychology to retired professionals and people of all ages and stages in between. If we can replicate the open debate, critical thinking and willingness to challenge their own perceptions that this audience demonstrated, we will make rapid progress towards all being able to get along!
 IBM Analytics White Paper. Weiner, S. P. and Rasch, R. Generational Differences at Work are Much Ado About Very Little. (2015)
 SHRM Foundation’s Effective Practice Guidelines Series. The Aging Workforce: Leveraging the Talents of Mature Employees. (2014)
With a background in business psychology, Sarah Tennyson has coached and facilitated workshops with over 10,000 people in 20 different countries. Her clients range from graduate to C-level across financial services, professional services, technology, corporate and non-profit sectors. Sarah holds an MSc Occupational Psychology and a BSc (Hons) Psychology. She is accredited to use a number of psychometric assessments. Sarah has written for the UK’s leading training journal and regularly publishes articles on current hot topics such as accelerating the development of future leaders, building high performing virtual teams, and managing generational differences.