April 28, 2015

The following scenario was provided in a problem-solving component of a generational communications workshop held for Childcare Administrators in the fall of 2009.  While this scenario specifically addresses this person’s particular work situation, it is a comment that transcends across all organizations.

“When mentioning a strategy to try with a child that is having special needs issues to a staff person that is older, the reply is usually ‘that won’t work’ followed by something negative about what the child will do with the strategy.  Others say it’s because ‘she is older and thinks in traditional ways.’”

The stereotype:  “Old people are set in their ways and don’t want to try new ideas” is a common frustration among younger people who are working on projects with people who are older or more experienced than themselves.

The reasons for such stereotypes most often are the result of poor interpersonal communication or can be rooted in more personal reasons.  Below we address the stereotype and the negativity, and how to address each situation.

He/She always thinks in traditional ways:  The following circumstances could be at issue here.
•    It could be that the older worker is having a hard time adapting to change.  They haven’t kept up with new methods and easily get overwhelmed by the barrage of new ideas, concepts or technologies that are constantly thrown at them. 
•    The negativity and unwillingness to compromise or try new ideas often is the result of fear and uncertainty.  They fear they are quickly becoming irrelevant and so have a greater desire to dig in their heels in order to protect their position and their sense of importance to the organization.  Unfortunately, the more individuals who think this way dig in their heels, the more likely it is that they truly will become irrelevant or pushed aside.  In their mind, the traditional ways worked best so there is no need for change.  

Working with or supervising an individual in this situation is difficult but not impossible.  The following suggestions are offered to move this situation from conflict to collaboration:
•    With the scenario given above, the younger person needs to turn the tables on the older “traditional thinker” by asking them to state why they feel the new strategy won’t work.  
o    Have they tried this before?  
o    If so, was the situation similar?  
o    What outcome was experienced?  

There is power in experience so in asking the experienced worker what happened when they tried this before, you are allowing them to share their expertise with you, the younger worker, and you are expressing your willingness to look at all sides of the situation.  
Allowing an older worker or volunteer to share their experience in a given situation accomplishes two things:  
1.    It reduces fear and uncertainty, and 
2.    It allows them to understand that they continue to be a valued member of the group.  

It may be that they are correct and the younger person’s idea truly isn’t what is best for this situation.  Listening to the experience of an older worker in this situation would then save a great deal of time and energy that would have been wasted needlessly.  Asking the older worker what they feel would be the best approach would also go a long way in helping to bridge the gap by creating a multi-generational team approach to problem-solving.

•    However, if in fact the older person does not have experience using the new idea or strategy, then in all likelihood, the reason for their behavior is not because they “think in traditional ways” as has been presumed, but the realization that their fear of irrelevance may have some truth to it.  In the early 1900s neurologist and physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon talks about “fight or flight” in terms of people’s physical reactions to given situations that they perceive to be threatening.  Negativity or putting down the ideas of those who are younger can be the older individual’s “fight” to hang onto their sense of value.

In a situation where there is no evidence that the new idea or strategy won’t work, and in all likelihood could offer improvement, it is important to move forward with the plan.  At the same time, the supervisor or person in charge needs to take the older person aside privately and explain that their behavior is not beneficial to them or the organization.  In this situation, the supervisor should:

•    Ask them why they feel a need to undermine the work of their colleague given that the new idea or strategy has the potential for success.  Once the real reasons for their negativity are brought out, then it is easier to address whatever conflict or issue exists.  It will be essential that the manager or supervisor in this scenario truly listen to and follow through on what the older worker is saying so this individual’s sense of value to the organization can be restored.