Want to know a deep dark secret? There’s some truth in the stereotypes about Gen Xers, Gen Yers and Baby Boomers and other emerging generations. That’s why they became stereotypes in the first place. Want to know another truth? Stereotyping people is a career- and leadership growth-killer. To thrive in today’s competitive world of work, individuals and organizations need all the help they can get. Be it out of the mouth of babes or ancient wisdom. French playwright Moliere said it best, “I take my good where I find it.”
We all know the labels. Gen Yers are lazy and entitled, and live half their lives digitally. Gen Xers are cynical and standoffish, and make lousy team players. Baby Boomers are stodgy and inflexible, and can’t relate to younger people. Can you find people who fit these stereotypes? Of course. Can you find people who smash them to pieces? I hope much more often. I’m one of them.
If you’re serious about success, you’ll reach to the best and brightest no matter how old or young they are.
Here are five steps to avoiding the workplace generational stereotype trap:
1) Be conscious of your stereotyping. Look, we all do it all the time. Own up. Make a list of the various ways you stereotype people by age. Become mindful. You can’t stop stereotyping until you realize how you do it.
2) Disprove the stereotype. Now that you have your list, find people who make a mockery of it. The Gen Xer who works 80 hours a week; the Gen Yer who created a winning team; the Boomer who invented a new product or process.
3) Train your brain. Now that you know who and how you stereotype, and how limiting and false it is, train yourself to stop doing it. Snap judging people by their most obvious attributes is deeply ingrained. Undoing it takes time, but every step is a move in the right. When you meet someone, watch your internal response, both intellectual and emotional. If you stereotype them, consciously tell yourself to look past it, at the person.
4) See the person in 3D for who they really are. There’s a word for anyone who doesn’t measure each individual by their unique talents and strengths. That word is “fool”. You’re working to build a successful career, project, or enterprise. Why in the world would you deprive yourself of help from all and any direction? Look at all the available talent, and judge people by their past performance and what they have to offer, not their age. You need them. Reach out.
5 ) Make it a habit. You want to build a network that transcends stereotyping. Make a conscious effort, at least once a week, to spend time with someone who you would have stereotyped in the past. If you’re a Gen Yer, take a Boomer out to lunch and listen to their story, soak up their lifetime lessons. If you’re a Boomer, mentor a Gen Yer, listen and learn. No matter what age you are, ask for help, admit your limitation. Too often we mistake an honest acknowledgement of our shortcomings as a weakness. It’s a strength. Like Moliere, take your good where you find it.
Stereotyping is self-destructive in or out of the workplace. It is also a denial of our basic humanity and the ability we all have to transcend superficial categorization. Smash stereotypes, celebrate individuality, and you will learn, grow, and be a happier person.
A version of this post was originally posted on Forbes.com on 4/7/2013.