Nurturing Psychological Safety in the Workplace Through an Age-Diverse Lens

by | Feb 19, 2024 | Diversity and Inclusion, Generations at Work, Psychological Safety, Workplace Culture | 0 comments

Leaders who embrace and leverage the strengths of each generation through intentional collaboration and reverse mentoring build a workplace culture that prioritizes psychological safety.

Understanding the Generational Landscape

Four major generations currently exist in the workforce:

  • Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)
  • Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980)
  • Generation Y or Millennials (born between 1981–1995)
  • Generation Z (born between 1997–2012)

Generational cohorts share a “formative context” through historical events in their impressionable years of youth that shape the cultural beliefs, norms, values, and understandings of their generation (Lyons et al., 2019). While we should guard against generalizing behavior and ignoring individual differences, each generational cohort tends to represent distinctive worldviews, ideals, and conflict management styles, making the workplace the “central theater” for the manifestation of generational identity (Lyons et al, 2019).

Despite notable strides in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in recent years, a study highlighted by Harvard Business Review reveals a critical oversight — only 8 percent of companies recognize different generational cohorts as a category of “diversity” (Gerhardt et al., 2022). Tim Elmore, author of A New Kind of Diversity (2022), echoes this concern, emphasizing the significance of generational differences is akin to cross-cultural distinctions. Unfortunately, pervasive negative stereotypes and generational name-calling, such as “OK, Boomer,” “Gen X Cynics,” “Entitled Millennials,” and “Gen Z Snowflakes,” have contributed to dismissiveness, obscuring the potential strength derived from age diversity in teams.

Gerpott et al. (2021), referencing Tajfel & Turner’s (2004) diversity research, note that multigenerational groups may have a lower inclination to engage in open knowledge sharing due to the salience of age as a factor, which triggers automatic social categorization processes. This tendency can have significant consequences in a workplace reliant on knowledge sharing and interpersonal communication for organizational agility, underscoring the heightened importance of fostering psychological safety (Edmondson, 2018).

“Apsychologically safe work environment is one in which employees feel safe to voice ideas, willingly seek feedback, provide honest feedback, collaborate, take risks, and experiment” (Newman et al., 2017, p. 521).

Perspectives on Psychological Safety: Traditional Values vs. Progressive Mindsets

Perception plays a keen role in shaping a person’s social identity. Lester et al. (2012) raised the important question of actual versus perceived generational differences at work in their study. They recognize the tendency for perceived differences to influence actual differences because each generational cohort interprets the other’s actions filtered through their own set of values and perceptions. Awareness of the lived experiences that different generations bring into the workplace can contribute to a richer understanding of how they may perceive psychological safety.

Baby Boomers, raised in an era of job stability, often value extreme optimism, loyalty, strong work ethic, and respect for authority (Burton et al., 2019). Baby Boomers may tie psychological safety to job security and respect for hierarchy. Employers must create avenues for them to share their wealth of experience without fear of being marginalized.

Generation X, characterized by their “middle child” traits, are sandwiched between two dominant generations (Elmore, 2022). They may appreciate workplaces that foster autonomy and acknowledge their ability to navigate complex challenges independently. Establishing clear communication channels and recognizing their leadership potential can enhance psychological safety.

Millennials (or Gen Y), known for their collaborative spirit, seek purpose-driven work and thrive in environments that value creativity, challenges, and innovation. Encouraging open dialogue and recognizing their contributions fosters psychological safety among this generation.

Generation Z, characterized by digital nativism, values inclusivity and adaptability. Providing platforms for continuous learning, open feedback, and embracing technological advancements can contribute to their sense of psychological safety.

Delving into the intricate dance of workplace dynamics, a meta-analysis study led by Burton et al. (2019) examined 121 peer-reviewed articles and unveiled five core themes that encapsulate the nuances of generational cohort disparities in the workplace: team dynamics, conflict, leadership, wages/work environment, and commitment. Interestingly, they found that most research studies focused on Millennial characteristics and dynamics. The fact that millennials make up an estimated 50% of the current workforce may explain this phenomenon. Otherwise, it may signify the seismic cultural shift ushered in by this cohort and those succeeding them with the advent of advanced technology.

In addition to the noticeable shift towards tech fluency in recent generations, Gerhardt et al. (2022) highlight a significant change in attitudes toward mental health. According to their findings, Millennial and Gen Z employees demonstrate more openness in expressing their concerns about mental health in the workplace, a subject that their older counterparts often prefer to keep more private. Younger generations may feel more confident to challenge the status quo and “the way things have always been done” in the workplace. Elmore (2022) advises that older generations embrace this fresh perspective and the progress it brings. Every well-established workplace idea or protocol provided novelty and disruption at some point in time. Leaders and primary stakeholders would do well to remember the evolution in thinking and behavior that each person undergoes over the course of decades before dismissing a perspective from a colleague of a different generation.

The intergenerational exchange becomes even more enriching when younger generations demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn from the sage wisdom and lived experiences of their elder colleagues. Elmore (2022) underscores that not all challenges encountered in workplace relations can be solely attributed to a generational gap in understanding. Within generational cohorts, substantial variations exist in personalities, socioeconomics, gender perspectives, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and familial influences.

Stronger Together

When workplaces recognize and leverage generational differences, they can transform perceived conflicts into opportunities for growth and collaboration. Gerhardt et al. (2022) advocate for a framework that involves identifying assumptions, adjusting perspectives, embracing differences, and fostering mutual learning. This approach shifts colleagues away from generational conflict, encouraging them to embrace intergenerational diversity as a team strength. Differences can be a beautiful thing.

I experienced this personally with a former colleague who was a generation ahead of me as a Baby Boomer. If she had a question (we did not work in the same location), she was likely to pick up the phone and call me, instead of using email or text messages. She never rushed to decisions in high-stress situations, and we often had differing opinions and perspectives of what needed to be done in our people operations role. However, we both leaned in. We didn’t shy away from the difficult conversations and listened to each other’s perspectives with mutual respect and openness. Our partnership usually resulted in a strong and united front moving ahead with the best possible option.

“Psychological safety” wasn’t a term I heard early in my career, but I experienced it within this age-diverse working relationship. We displayed genuine curiosity and gave each other freedom and safety to express differing viewpoints and ideas. My lovely colleague retired a few years ago, and we’ve remained close friends. We still call each other to discuss dilemmas, but now they reside in the personal, not professional, category. Years of trusting my colleague’s honest feedback and different perspective has made her one of the most valuable voices in my life.

Conclusion

Strong, psychologically safe work teams do not happen overnight, and they do not become a reality until people embrace curiosity about the perspectives and expertise each one brings from their respective lived experiences. (This concept applies beyond age diversity to all DEI initiatives!) Leaders play a pivotal role in nurturing inclusion by endorsing reverse mentoring, providing a platform for age-diverse colleagues to exchange knowledge, skills, and experiences mutually. This practice challenges preconceived age-based assumptions and encourages individuals to venture beyond their personal comfort zones (Clark, 2020).

By recognizing and appreciating the unique needs and strengths of each generation, organizations can cultivate environments where employees of all ages feel empowered to contribute their best. Such organizational cultures thrive on the principles of inclusivity and mutual respect, laying the groundwork for the establishment of a psychologically safe workplace.

References

Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization. John Wiley & Sons.

Elmore, T. (2022). A new kind of diversity. Maxwell Leadership.

Field, M. (2019, June 10). Work evolved: Building a successful multigenerational workforce. Forbes Magazine. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2019/06/10/work-evolved-building-a-successful-multigenerational-workforce/?sh=1581a96878cb

Gerhardt, M.W., Nachemson-Ekwall, J., & Fogel, B. (2022, March 8). Harnessing the power of age diversity. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/03/harnessing-the-power-of-age-diversity

Gerpott, F. H., Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., Wenzel, R., & Voelpel, S. C. (2021). Age diversity and learning outcomes in organizational training groups: the role of knowledge sharing and psychological safety. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 32(18), 3777–3804. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2019.1640763

Lester, Standifer, R. L., Schultz, N. J., & Windsor, J. M. (2012). Actual versus perceived generational differences at work: An empirical examination. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies19(3), 341–354. https://doi.org/10.1177/1548051812442747

Lyons, S. T., Schweitzer, L., Urick, M. J., & Kuron, L. (2019). A dynamic social-ecological model of generational identity in the workplace. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships17(1), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/15350770.2018.1500332

Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 521–535. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.01.001

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In J. T. Jost & J. Sidanius (Eds.), Political psychology, 276–293. Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203505984-16

Join Our Newsletter

Name(Required)
Share This