Reverse Mentoring in a Multi-Generational Workforce

Photo of experience worker with apprentice

Photo of experience worker with apprenticeWhile there is a contentious debate among researchers, experts, and managers alike regarding the fundamental motivational drivers and values-based differences between generations, one conclusion is undeniable. With four (if not five) generations working together in organizations, the differences in experience, skills, and use of tech are striking.

The oldest workers employed today are from the tail-end of the Silent Generation (born between 1925-1946). Having felt the immediate effects of the Great Depression and spending 50+ years in the workforce, they’ve seen a thing or two during their careers and they leverage those experiences to inform their decision-making. Next, the Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y/Millennials have been working together and fighting for power/influence for over a decade. And now, Gen Z (born after 1995) is entering the workforce and ready to make impact.

To be clear, there are many unfortunate stereotypes within each generation. There’s a healthy mix of tangible differences in each generation based on experiences. But there’s also unfair bias that results from poor memories about one’s own early career mistakes. Nevertheless, whether perceived or verified, conversations about generational differences may not result in respect for individual differences. Mentoring is often suggested as a way to break down silos, improve collaboration, and accelerate knowledge transfer within the organization. But the mentoring design tends to be a one-way, top-down approach to development.

Alternatively, reverse mentoring can provide a healthier two-way relationship where both parties benefit from the exchange and rely on one another’s experiences and natural talents. In a reverse mentoring program, younger generations are paired with older generations and both parties are expected to share their knowledge with one another to ensure all employees are more well-rounded.

Often, reverse mentoring conjures up images of a tech-savvy recent college graduate sitting down with a nearly retired employee and helping them learn how to navigate ever-evolving devices and technology. While this is common (and valuable), there are additional benefits to reverse mentoring. While older generations learn how to be more agile and leverage tech to be more efficient, Gen Y/Gen Z are able to access some of the leaders who are typically inaccessible to entry-level employees.

Where solid relationships are formed, Gen X/Gen Y expand their networks and become more visible to executive leaders who are interested in grooming the high potentials that may be called upon to continue a legacy. Additionally, Gen X/Gen Y builds skills and capabilities around communicating, collaborating, training, and coaching others. These skills are transferable throughout the lifetime of one’s career.

Over time, the communities within an organization evolve. Through reverse mentoring and frequent partnering for change, organizations have the opportunity to narrow the generational gap/divide and find ways to turn stereotypes into active learning opportunities.