04/30/2014 12:00 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

How Empathy Bridges the Gap in the Multi-Generational Workforce

This post is co-authored by Shannon Griesser

Three distinct generations can be found in in the American workplace, a situation which poses unique challenges and opportunities for business leaders. Although baby boomers began reaching the traditional retirement age of 65 in 2011, their representation in the workforce may not be dwindling as rapidly as you might expect. The combined one-two punch of the recession and the crumble in the housing market is keeping many of them in the cubicle longer than anticipated.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 18.5 percent of Americans over the age of 65 were employed in 2012, the highest rate in history. On the other end of the spectrum, by 2014, the millennial generation, also known as Generation Y, will make up 36 percent of the U.S. workforce. The impact of this generation comes not only from their numbers -- they represent the largest single age group in the country -- but from the altogether different way they approach work. The challenge for leaders in business is to create an environment where these two bookended generations -- and Generation X between them -- can ultimately contribute and thrive.

Behavioral differences among the generations emerge in predictable areas like the way they communicate, their ideas about formality and their relationship with technology. Their success in working around and through these differences, however, depends on their ability to see past the divisions to create an entirely new way of thinking, relating, and working together.

In the 1990s, the word "tolerance" peppered feature stories and school newsletters, and became the buzzword in conferences and board rooms throughout the developed world. In 1996, the U.N. General Assembly invited member states to observe the first International Day for Tolerance to encourage respect, dialogue and cooperation among different cultures, civilizations and peoples. It says a lot about our society that we confronted the old ways of division and began to dismantle them in a thoughtful, deliberate way.

Buzzwords come in and out of favor, and I've noticed we don't hear the word tolerance as much these days. I'd like to think it's because tolerance was simply the beginning of a much larger movement. Tolerance implies you have found a way to be neutral toward someone, or mildly generous at best. Today's workforce, where a 22-year-old marketing assistant is working alongside a 65-year-old product manager, demands more than tolerance.

We need to create opportunities for empathy and a deep understanding when it comes to how we view others and their circumstances. To have empathy according to Merriam-Webster online is to have "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences." This requires a culture of intentionality, humility, and a shift from an "us versus them" mindset to thinking in terms of "we."

I wanted to engage a young leader who could offer insight on this topic. I met an amazing Millennial leader, Shannon Griesser from Westwood International. She heads up the Leadership Project to empower Millennials in discovering their leadership potential. Shannon helped me think through this critical issue of bridging the generations.

Jayson: Looking at the major problems facing your community or your company, it is important to get past notions and assumptions about members of other generations. When we are intentional about our thinking and begin challenging our prejudices, we can unleash the power and creativity of a combined team that looks at connecting with others as a necessary step in solving problems. It should be intuitive that collaboration reaps greater results than work done in isolation, but it requires deliberate, intentional effort to put this into practice. A project manager can arrange for a senior analyst to serve as a mentor for a young recruit and ask for a deliverable to be prepared and presented in tandem. By creating the opportunity for the team members to work together, the project manager leverages solutions from different generational perspectives.

Shannon: Also, the younger generation feels valued and affirmed in their strengths. We are not growing to grow unless we are trusted to be challenged. By mistaking our eagerness for being a "know it all," we don't feel a part of the organization as a whole until we are viewed and addressed as a crucial member of the team.

Jayson: I once had a mentor who said his favorite definition of wisdom is realizing you can learn the most from the person you think has the least to offer. It takes great wisdom to say: "Everyone is my teacher." There is great value when we look beyond the labels to consider that each person you encounter knows something that you don't and can share a perspective you may not otherwise learn. Humility means putting your ego aside and being willing to risk looking like you're not the smartest person in the room. It also means being willing to admit when you're wrong. The most effective leaders know when to step back and let other leaders emerge, so model as a leader by allowing other members of your team to lead sessions and tackle some of your biggest organizational challenges. As Catholic Priest James Keller once said, "A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle."

Shannon: Personally, I am struggling to find the line between humility and confidence. Knowing that I don't know it all, but being able to name and practice my strengths that I can bring to the group, it is a difficult balance. If I am too humble I don't offer change because I am placing every else's opinion above mine because they are older, more experienced, or know what they are doing. However, I need to practice having confidence that my ideas or opinions matter and can add a unique and necessary perspective.

Another point -- I really appreciate when my boss and coworkers bring humility to the workplace. When my boss owns his mistakes, it makes me feel that I am able to do the same. Humility will be fostered in organizations if the leaders at the top practice it and set an example for others to do the same.

No More "Us Versus Them"
Jayson: A shift from thinking competitively to thinking collaboratively means more than giving a speech about working together at your weekly staff meeting. We need to create a wider understanding of diversity. There is an assumption that diversity refers only to racial or ethnic differences, or in a somewhat broader sense, gender differences. But what about age differences, and the challenges and opportunities those differences present? Baby boomers may dismiss millennials as being inexperienced, self-absorbed, or relentlessly attached to their devices. Likewise, younger workers may harbor negative assumptions that their older colleagues are inflexible, judgmental, or technologically out of touch.

Shannon: We come in as the underdogs. No experience, labeled as self-absorbed and entitled, fresh out of college. We have big ideas and dreams and lots of energy, but nowhere to transfer it to when the "us versus them" mentality pervades. So how do we prove ourselves? Being invited to collaborate helps us to break the prejudice that we hold towards the older generation.

I think an important point in this discussion is trust. Because we are learning, working, and growing together as a team, we are all equal parts that add special insights to the dialogue. Practicing empathy, intentionality, and humility brings about the possibility for honesty, trust, and true teamwork. It is like community building for the workplace. I think this is a huge reason why companies have such a difficult time retaining young employees. In my first year out of college, I have seen about half of my friends already start their second jobs. Millennials will stay with an organization that cares, trusts, and values them.

Jayson: When we begin to approach the multigenerational workplace with an attitude of openness and empathy, we can give executives and employees a solid foundation to leverage the strengths of each generation and show them how to look for the best in one another. In day-to-day application, this means that in meetings and working sessions, employees approach one another with the intention of first understanding the other. World-class teams are created and strengthened -- and become more attractive to prospective employees -- when we learn how to bridge the age gap. The most effective bridges are not one-lane bridges, they allow people to cross on both sides. We have to create communication spaces that enable the best ideas to cross that bridge between generations. The future of our workforce hinges on our willingness to let go of our prejudices and look at one another through a new set of lenses.

Jayson M. Boyers is the managing director of the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a private institution that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in professionally-focused programs balanced by an interdisciplinary core curriculum.

Shannon Griesser-graduated from Boston College with a BA in Mathematics and Theology,making her uniquely interested in both handling numbers and data, as well as making positive impact in the world. Her extensive involvement in service, leadership, and mentor programs sparked her passion to enter into the world of Leadership Development. Shannon currently is the program director of Westwoodʼs newest initiative for young leaders: The Leadership Project.