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Unpacking Workplace Demographics

The workplace is becoming “a more socially complex environment,” to borrow a phrase from new research by Assistant Professor Michele Williams, who goes on to explain how trust can be built or broken by age considerations.

“Generational Diversity Can Enhance Trust Across Boundaries” is slated for publication this summer in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

In an era when organizations increasingly reach out to specialists in order to stay competitive, what happens when Traditionalists, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are mixed and matched in the workplace?

In surveying 250 senior-level management consultants, Williams learned that the age makeup of a work group influences how an outside consultant paired with a team member perceives the trust extended to him or her.

When the consultant and team member are from different generations, but are embedded in a team with diverse ages, Williams’ research suggests that the consultant perceives greater trust and inclusion.

“Team heterogeneity forms a positive context rich in goodwill and cooperation for dissimilar boundary spanner-client dyads embedded within the team,” she writes.

But, for consultant-team member twosomes that are alike in age, generational diversity in the broader team generates a poor climate for goodwill.

This dichotomy suggests that reduced teamwork might not just be the fault of dissimilar twosomes, but from the low quality of relationships among team members who are close in age to one another.

The takeaway from this for managers, William said, is to go beyond the obvious.

Rather than helping only dissimilar individuals build strong relationships, she said, helping all team members do that means approaching culture change and skills training “in a way that communicates the value for all team members.”

When that happens, she said, trust is built in contexts that encourage risk taking and discourages blame in the aftermath of setback.

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