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Collaborative Intelligence Can Bridge Generation Gaps at Work

Authors of a new book show how boomers and Gen Xers can work better together

By Richard Eisenberg

If you are a boomer or Gen Xer and have wondered why your millennial and Gen Z colleagues work the ways they do, you can be pretty sure they're wondering the same thing about you.

A group of coworkers with a wide range in ages working together. Next Avenue, generation gaps at work
Credit: Getty

But in their new book, "Gentelligence," Miami University management professor Megan Gerhardt (a 45-year-old Gen Xer in Ohio) and 26-year-old millennials Josephine Nachemson-Ekwall (a Citi senior vice president in New York City) and Brandon Fogel (a University of Nebraska-Lincoln doctoral student) have a few ideas to make intergenerational workforces work better.

I recently Zoomed with all three for their somewhat surprising advice about "gentelligence," a portmanteau of generation and intelligence that Gerhardt coined in 2017 to help reframe the conversation about older and younger workers.

"There is a lot of power and opportunity in the idea of collaborative intelligence that comes from generational diversity," Gerhardt told me. She said she and her co-authors felt that if they could shift the way managers and employees think about the generations at work, "perhaps together we could accomplish more than we could separately."

Following are highlights from our conversation.

Richard Eisenberg: What was it like to work together on the book as members of different generations?

Brandon Fogel: I think throughout the experience, there were times where we were able to build on the individual strengths that each other provided.

I had never heard the phrase 'latchkey kid' to describe Gen X. So, I think I grew a greater appreciation for other generations from the opportunity to work with Megan. And I think we were able to provide different perspectives that she might not have considered on her own as well.

Eisenberg: So, were there cases, Brandon or Josephine, where, you said about Megan: 'Why does she do it that way? Or I wish she would do it the way I do it?'

Megan Gerhardt: Every day, Richard.

Josephine Nachemson-Ekwall: I think one of the things that helped in this process was that Megan and I think similarly on some level, and then we think differently in other areas.

Because of the wealth of knowledge and expertise, Megan put it all out there and it was very comprehensive and thorough. And I came in and I was like, 'But what is the point? What is the why? How do we tell a story? How does it all fit together?'

And at no point did I mean or imply or want to criticize what we had there; it was just about telling the story in a different way.

Eisenberg: Megan, what's your take on all that?

Gerhardt: I chose Brandon and Josephine specifically because I know how good they are and because they do think very differently from me.

Originally, the idea was this was my book, with Josephine and Brandon guest starring. And very quickly I said, 'You know, we really all need to be coauthors, you're contributing so much.'

And secondly, I could ask them, as millennials: 'What do you think you do differently? And can you help people understand why?'

And I wanted to know: What would a millennial take from this book? It needed to be a book for baby boomers, for Gen Z, for anybody in between. And you have to have all the voices at the table to do that.


Eisenberg: There is an implicit public assumption of a war between the generations, particularly in the workplace. How valid is that?

Gerhardt: That is an assumption perpetuated largely by the media. The research would tell us that most people say that they find value in working with people across generations; it is a reality for them.

I think when you dig into the personal level, though, people also are showing us that they feel their generation is misunderstood, that there are generalizations that aren't accurate which make them defensive. And that they don't feel their organizations or their leadership have a good handle on how to appreciate, value and leverage what each generation might be bringing to the table.

Workplace Diversity Training Rarely Touches on Age

Nachemson-Ekwall: I just wanted to add one thing, which is the lack of diversity training in the workplace around this topic. Age difference is very often left out of that conversation. It is quite a missed opportunity for an organization to not plug this in more purposely in their diversity and inclusion strategies.

Eisenberg: Why don't more employers do it? Only eight percent of diversity engagement and inclusion statements by employers include age.

Nachemson-Ekwall: It's possible that organizations are not yet equipped to initiate these conversations.

"Let's recognize that growing up in a different period of time does give you a very different perspective. It's like growing up in a different country, right?"

Gerhardt: Let's recognize that growing up in a different period of time does give you a very different perspective. It's like growing up in a different country, right? Our most successful way to look at this is as a layer of identity. And then we start adding in things like socioeconomic status. Millennials are stereotyped as entitled; that's much more of a story for a high-socioeconomic millennial than one that didn't have means.

Eisenberg: In the book, you say that intergenerational teams at work can be an utter disaster, a transformational breakthrough in the diversity of thought or somewhere in between, depending on how teams are led and managed. What can make an intergenerational team a disaster and what can make one transformational?

Gerhardt: If we leave our intergenerational teams to their own devices, we will likely experience what many of us have, which is conflict, miscommunication and frustration. But the research also shows that we could turn around that dynamic. With a gentelligence strategy, we could have intergenerational teams that are more successful than like-age teams.

That requires creating an age climate that is supportive of learning happening from both directions. As an older person, it shouldn't be strange or unusual that Brandon and Josephine have a lot of things to teach me, nor should I be worried about asking them to help me.

'Fluid' Knowledge Versus 'Crystallized' Knowledge

Eisenberg: I think many of us believe younger people can help older people with technology and older people can help younger people by saying: 'We've tried that before' or 'Here's my recommendation based on my experience.' Are those fair examples of what each can teach each other? Or are they stereotypical?

Gerhardt: They may be a little bit of both. We tag our millennials and our Gen Zs and say, 'They're our go-to for technology.' But what we found was that younger people tend to rely on a different kind of knowledge than older people. Younger people tend to lean into what's called 'fluid knowledge' — which is, 'What's the newest thing?'

Older people rely on crystallized knowledge — your example of, 'Well, let me tell you when we did that in the past and why it didn't work' or 'let me tell you what my go-to is.' The real gentelligence magic is when you combine fluid and crystallized knowledge. So, when Brandon shares with me this great new tool that he's been using and I say, 'Okay, but how would that supplement the way that I do it to make it easier for me to do what I know is the right thing to do?'

"If we've learned anything doing these interviews [for the book], when you're talking across generations you always need to stop and think: 'Are they going to interpret that the same way I am?'"

Eisenberg: My experience has been that younger people often prefer to communicate by texting and older people tend to be more comfortable emailing or picking up the phone. Is it fair to describe the generations that way? And if it is, how do you reconcile those different ways of communication?

Nachemson-Ekwall: When you work together, it's about setting up a protocol.

Gerhardt: It's not 'my way' or 'your way.' But when you're deciding on your shared team norm, younger generations prefer to know 'Why is that our norm?' This idea that, 'Well, that's just the rule, Josephine; we don't text at work,' immediately, younger people are going to think: 'That's an archaic rule. Someone who doesn't know how to text made that rule, and they're not understanding how that's limiting my productivity.'

So, if we're going to really leverage the potential here, let's sit down and have that conversation about 'Well, I'm not familiar with Slack. Can you help me understand why we would want to use that instead of email?'

And if it's explained to me that I have a much higher likelihood of people seeing and responding to my message on Slack, I might be on board with that. If we've learned anything doing these interviews [for the book], when you're talking across generations you always need to stop and think: 'Are they going to interpret that the same way I am? 'And if not, that's where we're going to fall into struggle and conflict.

The Unexpected Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Eisenberg: Do you feel that the pandemic made things harder or easy or different for intergenerational organizations to work well together?

Nachemson-Ekwall: I think people assumed going into this pandemic that younger people were going to have no problem transferring into using technology and that the older generation was going to struggle. What became evident fairly quickly is that the people that struggled were the younger ones, not because of the technology, but because of the social aspect of work that they were missing out on and being isolated and working from home.

On the other hand, the older generation, I think, has fared fairly well. They already had all of their connections in the workplace and just transferred those conversations online.

Eisenberg: Megan, any thoughts about how the pandemic has affected intergenerational workforces for better or for worse?

Gerhardt: Older workers may have been very loyal to one organization prior to the pandemic, because that is a generational norm for the baby boomer generation. The script is changing. The great resignation for the baby boomer generation is happening. They're starting those second- or third-act careers. They're leaving their current organizations because they don't feel valued and appreciated.

"The pandemic gave everybody a chance to catch their breath and say: 'Is this where I want to spend the next ten, fifteen, twenty years?'"

The pandemic gave everybody a chance to catch their breath and say: 'Is this where I want to spend the next ten, fifteen, twenty years?' So, now we have this amazing opportunity for companies to get an entirely new workforce of experienced workers — older workers who want to take what they've learned and maybe bring it to a new place and learn something new themselves.

Eisenberg: Brandon, any advice you want to give people who are over fifty on how they could work better and differently with younger generations?

Fogel: I think the biggest missed opportunity working with people from different generations is not starting with a foundation of respect — saying: 'We are here together with the same shared goal to accomplish the same shared task.' And if you start from there, (it becomes) really easy to better understand what each other expect from each other.

Eisenberg: Josephine, anything you want to add?

Nachemson-Ekwall: There's great opportunity for the older generation to pass along how to get things done in the workplace, how to get people on your agenda, how the culture of the organization is embedded and what actually is important.

So, reframe the institutional knowledge you have as an older person and try to step away from saying 'I'm really good at giving people advice, because I know what won't work.' That's not really actually the value that you're adding.

You're actually helping people get things done, create change, helping people see the organization for what it is and helping people operate within it effectively.

Gerhardt: It's all about establishing mutual respect. If Brandon came to me and said, 'This what I want to do' and if I immediately say, 'Well, let me tell you all the reasons that's not going to work,' they shut off. But if we are open to asking other people 'How would you do this? I'm interested in your perspective' and you start with 'Here's our goal. How would you do it?' I'm already signaling that I respect who they are. I respect their perspective.

I'm not giving them carte blanche to make the decision. Once I listen and think about what they've had to say, I might add: 'Here are a couple of questions I think we're going to need to ask because we might run into a couple of challenges based on my experience. So let's talk through how we would navigate around those.'

Immediately, they are going to definitely be more interested in listening to me because I first listened to them. That's Leadership 101.

We're not asking older people to substitute the younger person's way of doing it for their own. You're adding it. And then we get to open up this two-way conversation where we're both probably going to learn and teach each other something. So, be curious and seek out input as a way to learn, but also to build trust.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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