Starting to read Chip Conley's best-selling book, Wisdom at Work, felt a lot like the first time I visited Paris and was addressed as "madame" rather than "mademoiselle."

As in, I'm not as young as I used to be.

Fortunately this turns out to be a good thing, both for professionals at work in Conley's view and for women of a certain age in Paris. Let's focus here on professionals at work, and the idea of aging with vitality. A very compelling reason to revel in growing older? If you enjoy the prospect of it, Conley points out in his book, you live longer.

Sign me up.

Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder was a shot in the arm, not only for its pithy one-liners but also for its clever ideas on incorporating experienced workers into the flow of business and for its grounding in the literature and research around aging in the workplace.

Here's a summary of three clever ideas, seen through the lens of an entrepreneur, for how a business of any size can embrace intergenerational collaboration.

Encourage your employees to spend time on a subject area that has nothing to do with their primary role.

Ambidextrous is one way to say it; cross-fertilizing is another. Both pathways open up vistas of other perspectives, which can potentially break some habitual thinking.

Conley points to the work of neurologist Marsel Mesulam and his "Superagers," those who see almost no cognitive decline with age. What they all have in common is that they consistently work on difficult tasks that require ambidextrous use of their mind.

Question-storm instead of brain-storm.

One way to break the patterns of habitual thinking at the office is to organize "question-storming" exercises, which tweaks the classic brain-storming concept. The idea is to put a problem or challenge in front of a group of people and instead of asking for ideas, instruct participants to generate as many relevant questions as they can.

Habitual thinking can go hand-in-hand with siloed cliques at work that exclude those unlike ourselves, including older workers.

Collaborate, on purpose.

Collaboration is another way to break the patterns of habitual thinking and, although we all like to think of ourselves as enthusiastic work-together partners, it isn't always easy to actually implement. 

Conley suggests this collaboration trick: make sure that all action items at the end of a meeting are shared by two people rather than one. This forces team members to work together between meetings, come to mutual agreement, and present their findings or solution as a united front.

Older employees often have high emotional intelligence due to experience -- take advantage of it.

Supplementing digital intelligence (DQ), or the understanding of technology, with emotional intelligence (EQ) is a hallmark of how teams can embrace intergenerational collaboration.

"The more technology becomes ubiquitous, the less DQ is actually a differentiator," Conley writes. The wisdom of a modern elder is one of the few natural resources globally that is increasing, not declining.

The flip version of DQ is part EQ (emotional intelligence) and part the ability to get the "gist" of something by synthesizing a wide variety of information quickly. That's systems thinking and pattern recognition, and it's where age gives us the indisputable upper hand, Conley writes. "The longer you've been on this planet, the more patterns you've seen and can recognize."

Look around your office, and see if you can gauge the representation of DQ and EQ. Chances are very good that some DQ was required to get your startup off the ground, but how are you tapping into the available resources of EQ? Are co-workers or advisors with high EQ easily accessible, and are their skills encouraged?

More importantly, would those co-workers be game for making mentoring a more active part of their day-to-day role? That takes a special skillset, but seeking it out and encouraging it could be the game-changer your startup needs. 

Published on: May 30, 2019
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