secret > GENTELLIGENCE. The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce

About the author
Megan Gerhardt is a Professor of Management and Director of Leadership Development at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University. She is also the creator of the Gentelligence Movement, a school of thought that concretely promotes intergenerational collaboration within the workplace.

The key elements of the book
The book  outlines a fresh approach and methodology to address one of the most significant challenges facing organizations today – whether for-profit or non-profit – namely, the coexistence of multiple generations in the workplace.

Author Megan Gerhardt PhD, through her research and field experience, demonstrates and confirms that ignoring generational differences is not the answer. Although the phenomenon of intergenerational conflict is as old as the world, the fact that people from five different generations – the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z – find themselves working together, which is unprecedented, means that tension in the workplace continues to rise. Mistrust, anger, frustration and demotivation are just some of the displays we encounter when working in multi-generational contexts. This undermines team performance, limits collaboration, decreases the quality of work and becomes a cause for turnover. 

Intergenerational teams, on the other hand, are valuable because they bring together people with complementary approaches, skills and expertise. Team members, however, must be willing to collaborate with each other and learn from their differences: ignoring them is not the answer, Gehrardt argues. It is about helping people to look at their differences with healthy curiosity, to see ‘what the other person can do’ as beneficial to the whole organization. 

Empirical evidence shows that when using DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) tools to overcome generational gaps, it is possible to reduce conflict, stereotypes, and turnover, as well as improve people’s well-being and organizational performance.

Age bias, called ‘ageism’, is one of the biases that is still somewhat tolerated from a social point of view, unlike gender or ethnic discrimination, for example. Moreover, the author observes, when we refer to age discrimination, we most often think of the marginalisation of older workers by younger ones. Paradoxically, this kind of negative perception is not just a matter of ‘young versus old’: research has shown that older people seem to be more likely to act out negative attitudes towards other older people. Although the reasons behind this phenomenon are still unclear, researchers suspect that older workers are acutely aware of the age-related views that exist in their organizations and assume these attitudes as a way of adapting.

In her book, Gerhardt attempts to offer a framework  that she developed together with co-authors Josephine Nachemson-Ekwall and Brandon Fogel in order to manage generational conflict and guide those involved towards the productive acceptance of mutual differences. The suggested scheme involves four practices to be implemented as successive and consequential steps. The first two are aimed at overcoming bias and stereotypes (Identify Your Hires and Adjust Your Lenses), while the other two (Exploit Differences and Promote Mutual Learning) guide people to pool knowledge and expertise to grow together.

Let us elaborate here, by way of example, on the first practice, namely ‘Identify Assumptions’ and the fourth, namely ‘Promote Mutual Learning’.

The first, ‘Identify Assumptions’, plays a fundamental role in generating awareness in those involved. It consists of inviting each person to focus for a short period of time (e.g. one week) on the assumptions they encounter in their daily work. In practice, people are asked to notice their own actions, but also those of others and to note them down. Afterwards, a meeting is scheduled with the group to discuss the individual experiences observed. People are asked to report what they have seen or heard without judging. For example: “Input from our younger colleagues is discarded immediately,” instead of: “Senior leaders ignore our younger colleagues because they think they have nothing to offer.” Everyone is encouraged to embrace the feedback and ask how age bias could undermine team cohesion, commitment and performance.

The fourth, ‘Promoting Mutual Learning’, aims to show intergenerational team members that they have something to learn from colleagues from other age groups. One way to encourage this process is to activate formal Mentoring (Senior vs. Junior) and Reverse Mentoring (Junior vs. Senior) initiatives. How? For example, by asking co-workers of all ages about what they want to learn and what they want to teach others. People may be fearful or even unaware of their own expertise, so it is useful to start by highlighting each person’s strengths, then proceed with organizing the training sessions from a practical point of view.

“When dissimilar people (in our case, it would be those from different ages and generations)  work together, everyone ends up with increased access to new kinds of valuable information and perspectives. (…)  This kind of outcome means diversity is just not a metric to be strived for, it is an actual integral part of successful revenue generating business” (page 18).

“Gentelligence (…) in the strategy that will allow organizations to effectively realize these opportunities. (…) Ideas are improved by combining the innovation and wisdom of younger and older employees; the result is something no one employee (or generation) could create alone.

Generations are simply one layer of identity. Just as knowing where people grew up can help to explain why they hold particular perspectives, knowing which generation they belong to can illuminate their point of view” (pages 21-22-24).

“Creating workplace that fosters intergenerational cooperation is impossible as long as age discrimination exists. Age discrimination is most often thought of as a threat to older workers, and there are many common biases about older workers that researchers have found exist in the worplace  (…)  Such common labels include being rigid, averse to change, less motivated, harder to train and tech resistant. Surprisingly, these kinds of negative perceptions are not just a matter of younger people being biased against older people. (…) researchers suspect it may be that older workers are keenly aware of the ageist views that exist in their organizations and take on these attitudes as a way to fit in” (page 51).

“Diverse teams are prone to dysfunction because the very differences that feed creativity and high performance can also create communication barriers. (…) The potential of age diversity might sound idealist to some, especially to those who have been frustrated with past intergenerational collaborations. In fact, many researches confirm that many age-diverse teams aren’t successful. However, other research has shown the opposite effect (…). Ultimately, intergenerational teams are a paradox. They can be an utter disaster, or they can be a transformational breakthrough in the diversity of thought, or somewhere in between, depending on how these teams are led and managed” (page 117-118).

Structure and content of the book
The book is divided into nine chapters.

In the first two, the author confirms how conflict between generations is not to be considered a new phenomenon, but rather a recurring one that has recently been fomented by demographic change within organizations. She also emphasises how generational clichés and shared experiences between people of different ages reveal the great complexity of “understanding each other across generations”.

Chapters three and four conclude the exploration of the problem by identifying the obstacles that prevent the effective exercise of intergenerational leadership, which are: intergenerational criticism, age bias, perceived values, knowledge and its forms. The Gentelligence methodology based on using diversity as thinking to create more effective and engaging workplaces is introduced.

In the following chapters, space is given to concrete experiences that serve as case studies to demonstrate how the four-practice methodology – Identifying Hires, Adjusting Lenses, Strengthening Trust and Promoting Mutual Learning – is already bearing fruit in helping leaders of organizations that adopt them to do Talent Attraction and create an intergenerational alliance capable of managing uncertainty and coping with change.

What we appreciate about this book is the author’s ability to teach us about the phenomenon of classifying people by age, and thus also by generation.
As we know, a generation is a demographic cohort whose members were born in the same historical period and therefore experience similar events and phenomena at the same stages of life. On the other hand, we have become so accustomed to classifying generations or – on the contrary – minimizing the differences that exist between them, that we have forgotten that there are actually benefits in anagraphic differences. Knowing how to recognise and embrace them, especially with the changes that have taken place in the way we work, is the ethical and professional duty of today’s leaders, as is putting intergenerational teams at the heart of every organization’s Diversity & Inclusion policies.