Why businesses should embrace the benefits of age-diversity on their team

- October 12, 2022 4 MIN READ

Inclusion and diversity are hot topics in business these days – and rightly so. But while the major focuses seem to be on gender, ethnic and disability inclusion in the workplace, what of age diversity? The younger and older generations have a lot to teach each other and an age-diverse team can strengthen your business, writes author and leadership expert, Michelle Gibbings.

The downfall of many great companies is often traced to the hubris and arrogance of their leaders. Having a fixed mindset, they close themselves off from feedback and feel they have nothing more to learn.

As organisations grapple with more complex decisions and an ever-increasing pace of change, the need for leaders to listen to diverse perspectives is essential.

If leaders want to think differently, it helps to spend time with people who see things differently. Consequently, there are significant benefits in building a team with different experiences, backgrounds and ages.

Assumptions underpin decisions

We don’t make decisions purely on fact and reason.

Our brain uses information from the past to determine how to proceed in the future. This means that as your brain takes in new information, it tries to make sense of what it sees and hears. To ease the cognitive load this processing takes, it compresses information and sorts it into patterns. It looks for familiar things and then says, ‘I know what to do’.

This process is effectively your brain taking a mental shortcut. It’s designed to help you work out what to do as quickly as possible. It’s also your brain’s way of making big things and complex issues easier to manage and ultimately remember.

The problem is that this shortcutting process isn’t always reliable. For example, your brain may expect to see something a certain way, so it will seek out information to validate that view. It may use past experiences or dated assumptions to determine a present course of action.

Four ethnically diverse business women in office

Diversity trumps ability

This is where diversity plays a crucial role in effective decision-making.

Homogeneity in teams can negatively impact how decisions are made. The more alike people are, the more likely they are to think along the same lines and therefore, there is less room for debate, discernment and disagreement.

Research by Associate Professor of Management and Organisations at the Kellogg School of Management, Katherine Phillips, and colleagues found that diverse teams often make better decisions as they ensure different views are considered. The diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups, not because of an influx of new ideas but because the diversity triggered more careful information processing.

Similarly, Scott Page and Lu Hong found that groups of diverse problem-solvers can outperform groups of ‘high ability’ problem-solvers.

While their research concluded that the ideal group for decision-making would be high-ability problem-solvers who are also diverse, they also found that a person’s ability may not be as crucial in determining their potential contribution as a problem-solver as measures of how differently a person thinks.

Leaders need people around them who challenge how they think and can disrupt their default thinking patterns.

For example, young people are often not as burdened by convention and are more willing to ask the so-called (but often not) ‘dumb question’. They will raise issues that others may not see because they view the world through a different lens. At the same time, older people have grown up in a different context, can share insights into past experiences, and often see dependencies and connections.

Implications at work

The implications of this are not just about decision-making but about how leaders hire and recruit.

It is very easy for leaders to want to hire people who are like them. The similarity makes them feel comfortable because they can see aspects of themselves in the new team member.

However, when leaders hire in their own likeness, they fill the team with people with similar backgrounds, experiences and thought processes. Sadly, cognitive diversity will likely be missing.

Value the difference

Each person brings a different range of skills to the table, and it’s essential for leaders to appreciate and value that difference. However, what’s common, is that employees want to feel valued and respected and to have their work recognised and appreciated.

Be careful about making assumptions about someone’s age and what that means for how they want to work and what they need from the job. Instead, treat everyone as an individual and take the time to get to know them on an individual level. Seek to understand their career aspirations, life goals and what motivates them.

From experience, when a leader shows a genuine interest in each team member, this will enhance the team’s cohesiveness and willingness to go the extra mile.

As the economist John Maynard Keynes, once said: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones”. It’s impossible to escape those old ideas if you constantly surround yourself with what’s known, familiar and comfortable.

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