Mentoring: Bridging generations in the workplace

In our two previous articles on the multigenerational workforce, we examined the backgrounds, values and work styles of baby boomers, born between the years 1946 and 1964; Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1976; and Millennials, born between the years of 1977 and 1998. We also discussed ways to build upon generational differences, because although there may be marked distinctions among the generations, strong leaders can facilitate effective partnerships across these generations.

In this final article on multigenerational workplaces, we will focus on mentoring and examine various ways that leaders can facilitate productive mentoring relationships among employees of different generations.

There are various forms that mentorship may take. The traditional mentoring model involves pairing younger workers with older workers so that the more experienced employee may instill institutional knowledge and skills to the less experienced employee, thereby helping that younger worker move up the organizational ladder. However, another form that a mentorship can take may involve a reciprocal arrangement, where younger workers also share their skills with their more established colleagues.

A “reverse mentorship” relationship, therefore, may give an unconventional twist to building connections between boomers and younger workers. A 2012 article in Human Resource Management Journal argues that there can be a considerable amount of value in having a younger, junior employee share his/her expertise, technological and otherwise, with a more senior colleague. In this relationship, younger workers are able to reap the benefits of traditional mentorship while simultaneously passing on technical savvy and multitasking skills to older workers.

Developing dynamic mentorship programs can encourage co-workers to connect both personally and professionally. The healthiest workplaces are those that treat their employees as multi-dimensional individuals who wish to be engaged on many levels, and reverse mentorship helps accomplish this goal. For supervisors, the key to fostering these reverse mentorship relationships may lie in reinforcing the idea that all workers have valuable skills, and that sharing them will only increase their worth and stability in the workplace. Although some employees are reluctant to teach their strengths to others for fear that they give up some expertise and thus their power in the organization, co-workers helping each other ultimately strengthens bonds, opens communication and is good for not only the organization but also for the employees themselves.

To encourage these relationships, leaders should consider tapping into employees’ existing interests and affinities. For example, a 2009 Harvard Business Review article revealed a number of similarities between baby boomers and Millennial workers. Many members of both groups were drawn to opportunities that allowed time to explore their passions, hobbies and volunteering. Both groups felt that temporarily taking time away from work was an opportunity for fulfillment. According to Boston College’s Center for Work and Family, Millennial workers are likely to reject hierarchical leadership, desiring to lead by team motivation, collegiality and accountability. Even though younger workers may initially question the boomer top-down leadership style, their shared value systems may be a way to connect the two generations. This is especially important as older workers begin to retire and Millennials follow the path into their leadership roles. Innovative leaders will facilitate such unions and encourage older and younger workers to see the similarities they share and, conversely, the ways that their differences are productive.

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