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70: the New 50SM

How Do Trainers Adapt to Older Workers' Particular Needs?

In response to a February/March 2007 survey, 42 consultants inside and outside DDI provided some insights about how they adapt training to the needs of older learners. Everyone was asked to describe the need/challenge and how they were able to overcome it (assuming that they did).

For ease of review, we have categorized comments into 7 categories.

1. Motivation

  • Sometimes older learners are not happy to have to go to training that is mandated - frequently they feel they feel they could teach the course and are not happy about it. So I try to include them by drawing on their experiences - either asking them to share or using examples they give. As a facilitator you just have to be aware of their motives for sharing. If they go on and on about the old days or how good the old days were - let the value be seen but that cannot dominate. I believe recognizing their years of service are important from an esteem perspective.
  • Challenge: They tend to not see a need to further develop their skills. Strategy: Seek examples and reflect on how many times new learnings have been useful to them.
  • Issue of motivation/reframing view of self as a contributor. Get them to accept that they will not go further in the management ranks, but they can see themselves being a meaningful contributor as a mentor and contributor to the strategic direction of the group/company. Need to see their usefulness and legacy.
  • In many cases, older trainees (leader level) are willing to learn. In some industries, there is a greater likelihood of facing resistance to change (heavy manufacturing, automotive, energy - union environments). "It worked fine for me and my dad/former boss/colleagues, why change?" I have found it beneficial to get some internal champions in the class to speak up on success they've had with the skill set—get a peer group to "sell" the individual, not the "outside consultant".
  • Older trainees lacked some confidence and felt that they might be at a disadvantage. What helped was to remind them of their years of experience and how much they still had to offer.
  • Recognize the experience of this group. Adjust the exercises if necessary to include their work experience. For example, using all DYO skill practicing for the activity even if the prepared practices are available.
  • Sometimes this age group may see no need to be trained in soft skills areas because they feel proficient already. Disclose personally with lots of sharing and empathy around how the workforce has changed in their expectations since "the good ole days (as they remember it).
  • I spend more time validating their knowledge and skill level. Their experience usually sets a strong foundation for learning additional skills. For example, when I was facilitating recently, the leaders had extensive experience in coaching for improvement. I would recognize their experience and ask more questions about how they do it, so they can share it with the group if there are younger or less experienced participants.
  • Some older learners still like to learn just for the sake of learning. But for others, it is critical that the training be relevant, timely, and practical.
  • Early in the program get them talking about their challenges. Ask for examples from them about what has worked in the past and what has failed. Then relate the learning points to an alternative to those things that they tried in the past but did not work.
  • I recognized the experience in the group, sometimes by asking them (if doing intros) for how many years they had been in the industry. Then I total up the years in the room and make reference to the expertise, and that they have had a history of having to learn better and more effective ways of doing things over those years.
  • Attitude is probably the bigger issue with some of the older workers on the manufacturing line. They do not want to participate rather are counting down to retirement. I find working with them to help them understand that their knowledge base of multiple years is very important for the younger workers helps to get them involved.
  • Another big challenge is dealing with some older trainees who feel like they are CLOSE to retirement, so they feel like they can't really apply—or don't need to apply—the learning. I always turn these into "legacy" discussions. In other words, I ask them what kinds of legacy they want to leave when they DO retire and I encourage them to spend time helping younger colleagues improve their skills.
  • I asked how many of them would like to make their jobs (as leaders) a lot easier. They all raise their hands. Then I tell them that my goal is to give them a few tricks of the trade, to allow them to go about their work day in a calm, confident way. And in a way that will be not only more effective, but also more efficient.
  • Don’t appreciate theoretical models - need to get to practical applications immediately.

2. Resistance to Change (accept new ways)

  • In training managers, some find it challenging to let go of "what worked" or how a "successful" manager was defined in their industry or organization in the past. I worked with them to acknowledge the strengths and skills they currently have, that is, what has made them successful in the past, and then gave them opportunities to practice new behaviors and skills so they felt comfortable making the transition to new expectations.
  • Use their life experiences to draw out what they really already know.
  • During a certification workshop, the experienced learners decided to change/tailor the information in our facilitator guides. As a result, they were not as effective in their presentation. During the feedback session, I asked how they had prepared and how it impacted their success. Their responses heightened their awareness to the fact that they had not trusted the information. To prepare for their second presentation, we determined where they could funnel their experience and creativity to compliment the facilitator guide.
  • The challenge was having them come to an understanding that the people they were leading now are coming from a very different perspective than 15 or 20 years ago. We talk about the average age of new hires (mid-twenties) and reflect on when they were born (early eighties) and how their attitudes to work were formed in the nineties. We then discuss how leadership must adapt to this new paradigm.
  • Unrealistic view of the young people that they manage. Provided data, e.g., Gallup 12Q, that show work attitudes of today's young workforce. Also, empathized as an "older worker" myself that values have changed, e.g., loyalty to the organization.
  • Challenge = encouraging older trainees to embrace new approaches and change long-standing habits. Approach = position new techniques as a valuable supplement to their existing experience (not as a complete replacement for what's already working for them).
  • Some resistance to change. By making the individual the "practical" checker. “If you see something that doesn't apply or help with your job responsibilities, bring it up.”
  • In working with an older female trainee, I found she believed her way was the only way. As we worked through exercises, I suggested we try it her way and then try it my way. She did this grudgingly but after a few times, she became more open to the new way as she could see it was more efficient.
  • At the more senior levels—you really have to include their experience, and how they have won success into the discussion/solution, while getting buy-in to try things a little bit differently. Using current research (retention, turnover) examples from other businesses/industries, "hot books" etc. seems to help here. Lots more prep for the facilitator to make it "real" for them, and gain commitment and accountability for change.
  • If anyone was strongly resistant. Check in with them and try and encourage a higher level of commitment from them by asking them to lead discussions in small group sessions and/or ask they be a mentor to less experience supervisors or leaders in the room.
  • In training Targeted Selection to older managers who have had their own way of interviewing, I ask them to reflect on bad hiring decisions (not necessarily one that they made but ones they had been forced to live with). We discuss what led to those bad hiring decisions. This is similar to an exercise already present. I just move it up in the material. This sets the stage for an easier acceptance of the material.
  • Change is more difficult; more set in their ways and lots of baggage. Need specially to know benefits for them to make the change and empathy that it is hard and understanding that it will take time; many are highly responsible workers that might tend towards perfectionism and change is always difficult for this group.
  • Participants (at any age!) need to see the "WIIFM". For one client, we pulled performance review results for the leader's teams, and compared that to the employee satisfaction results from those same teams. Managers that were reviewed poorly on the employee satisfaction results tended to have the highest turnover, and lowest performing teams. We haven't implemented all of the solution yet, but will link these results to the competencies and skills addressed in the leadership training - in order for the leaders to see that their behaviors really do impact engagement. We will also do some discussion on the WIIFM's - how a different approach to leadership might make their jobs easier and less stressful. This is an energy company.
  • I have tried to build more of an "equal" relationship, where we are all sharing stories and learning from one another—for example, when we have both had to deliver difficult employee evaluations. This builds respect between us.
  • One consultant on my team approached the "senior" leaders with research on generation gaps - what younger workers want/need from their jobs/organization. This information was compared to what older workers looked for in their careers/leaders. By showing how differently the generations approach "work", it became clear that Leadership had to change in order to meet the needs of the new workforce.

3. Same Old Stuff

  • They needed to be sure the training was not flavor-of-the-month. I provided information that showed organizational commitment/support including who the key players were that were accountable for the success of the program and what those key players were doing to champion the effort. Was most effective when information included how the effort was linked to performance management and rewards.
  • Allow time to discuss their past training experiences and how they've applied learnings from different areas of their work history.
  • One big challenge is to overcome older trainees' feelings that they have been through 'so many' similar training experiences during their careers. I usually encourage them to then share those experiences, what they learned, and how they applied what they learned. I also ask them what barriers they have faced to applying what they learned in other workshops and get them to focus on how they can overcome those barriers with this training.
  • Resistance related to "I've been through 100 programs like this and have been doing it for years." is reduced when they practice and are given specific feedback.
  • Tendency to be a little jaded - another 'flavor-of-the-month'. Overcome by using their insight as it applies to culture change in their current role/organization and how they've adapted through other major changes, etc. Continue to position them as experts/champions in the workshops.
  • Looking at the content in the facilitator guide and adjusting the content or delivery approach to less tell and more seek and/or a higher involvement level from the participants. Let them do more self-discovery of learning than to "tell" too much information.
  • Used empathy if they respond that they've “been there…done that.”

4. Problems Learning – Especially Technology

  • Slowed down the pace when needed to allow more time for discussion and overcoming resistance. Did not reference as much technology for them if they were not as savvy as younger workers.
  • On a manufacturing plant floor there are many over 50 workers. There are issues with reading ability. I read a lot of the material and try to avoid focusing on the individual who might be having issues with their reading.
  • Have generally found that pace of the course is the biggest challenge with older participants. In smaller, intact groups, can slow the pace and use relevant examples. With mixed groups, I have worked 1 on 1 with folks at lunch and during break. On occasion I have scheduled additional time to work 1 on 1 with a particular participant.
  • Individual contributor level - some may not be as familiar with technology. If implementation includes dependence on e-enabled solutions, offers of 1-on-1 coaching through first WBT, paper pencil instead of automated Leadership Mirror, etc. sometimes get good results. The "Quick Reference Cards" for each e-solution are great!
  • Older learners seem to learn more by doing and discussing so I try to make sure they engage in skill practices. I make a point to engage in small group conversations with questions geared to get all participating.
  • Inexperience with computers ... slowed down, gave individual attention, provided optional "homework" exercises.
  • With 1 person, extra time didn't suffice. So we drew a decision tree (teaching TS) to better explain the concept of false, partial, complete STARs. The visual representation is what he needed.
  • Keep the trainer environment "safe" so they have the ability to practice without ridicule from peers.

5. Learning Environment

  • A physical challenge faced with this age group when doing facilitator certifications is that most need reading glasses, and they have a hard time being able to see both the facilitator materials and their audience. Vanity was an issue with some, as they didn't want to appear in front of the group with "readers" on. My approach has been to offer tips, but then let them discover what will work for them.
  • Confusion about new terminology ... used plain language; related their experiences and "language" to new terms; used analogies.
  • Challenge: Physical comfort (sitting in one position, uncomfortable chairs). Low stress activities, but get them to stand/sit/move often.
  • Mobility/Sight/Hearing limitations ... asked if/what kind of help I might provide; allowed additional time as needed for exercises, breaks; responded to specific requests (volume, lighting, location, etc.).

6. Resistance to Learning Methodologies e.g. Behavior Modeling

  • Lack of confidence - asking them to share some (related) experience to help them remember their ability to learn/change; encouraging questions; clarifying; checking for understanding, etc.
  • Challenge = present information in a way that acknowledges trainees' previous training and experience. Approach = actively involve older trainees. Ask them to supply examples from their experience. Depending on the training topic, acknowledge that this may not be the first time they've received this type of training. Where relevant, position older trainees as coaches and mentors for less seasoned colleagues.
  • Challenge - not easily bought-in; called upon their experience, related concepts/skills to what they were familiar with.
  • Occasionally, the older participants are a bit more resistant to learning new skills, practicing (role plays), etc. So we spend some time discussing how the skills aren't new and how they apply to life inside and outside of work. I need to spend more time winning them over and convincing them of the value of training. Silly as it sounds, I've had success spending time first in getting to know them personally and charming them with humor throughout the training!
  • Not wanting to embarrass themselves when trying new skills in class. Have them practice in small groups. Provide them with a little more coaching.
  • DDI videos often show leaders and associates with some gray hair and wrinkles. I believe this helps the older learner relate and not feel left out like a dinosaur.

7. Acceptance of Trainers

  • I made sure to meet everyone in the class prior to the class starting, i.e. shake hands, offer to get them coffee, ask them about their tenure with the company.
  • Knowing there was a going to be a significant generational gap between myself and the learners, I researched the tendencies of both generations. I used this information to tailor how I shared best practices as well as sharing information about my experiences. I also solicited suggestions from the same generation as my learners who would not be in the classroom. Additionally I walked those same individuals through the information and adjusted the flow based on their feedback.
  • Prior to the session, I had studied the background and accomplishments of each learner. The purpose of retaining this information was to capitalize on their experiences in a very specific way. I wanted to be able to sincerely acknowledge their tenure in their roles. With a working knowledge of their work history, I was able to build credibility with each of them.
  • I was concerned as to how they might react to someone who was younger than them both in age and appearance. To ensure my impact was effective, I paid close attention to my appearance. I chose tailored suits and wore glasses as an additional way to overcome any barriers to receiving the message.
  • They needed to be trained by someone with great credibility. Fortunately, I come across as credible and was chosen to work with these folks for that reason. And it is not just about being older like them. It is showing respect and value for them and tailoring the material so it takes into account their experience and abilities.
  • When older learners talk about job insecurity or the challenge of working for much younger leaders, I listen with empathy and compassion.
  • Building credibility - when I am able to listen to their situations; share similar situations; and then directly relate concepts within the material.

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