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Age diversity in companies translates into ''anger, fear, and disgust,'' study finds

August 1, 2011

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

A leading news magazine reports that 40% of employers worry the aging of the workforce will have a negative or very negative impact on their business. Are they unduly pessimistic?
 
With growing age diversity in the workplace an undeniable fact of life, there is no shortage of voices arguing its virtues, even while conceding its challenges. Yet, new research, based on data from 62 companies and some 8,000 employees, provides a sobering picture of what this trend means in terms of the emotional climate of the work environment.
 
To be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (San Antonio, Aug. 14-16), the study finds that  "in age-diverse companies, employees experience more anger, fear, and disgust, and therefore they consider more often changing their jobs and contribute less to the performance of the company as a whole."
 
In sum, "Higher age diversity leads to poorer organizational outcomes, because of its negative influence on the company's affective climate...The benefits of differing expertise, experience and perspectives typically associated with diversity are not likely to unfold...The exuberant expression of emotions in upbeat organizations may work for same-age people, but it does not resonate well in age-diverse organizations."
 
"The problems associated with increasing age diversity are unlikely to solve themselves," comments Florian Kunze of the University of St. Gallen, in Switzerland, who carried out the study with Jochen Menges of Cambridge University. "They need to receive the same level of attention that is devoted to ethnic diversity or gender diversity, and, unfortunately, that is probably not occurring today in most organizations."
 
Despite its hazards, age diversity does not inevitably lead to what the researchers call a "negative affective tone." What it does require, however, is that workers exercise more emotional constraint than they would do in less age-diverse settings.
 
Comments Dr. Kunze: "Emotional suppression is generally assumed to be a bad for both people and organizations. But in age-diverse companies it is virtually imperative."
 
Or, in the words of the study,"In contrast to several studies on the individual level that portray emotion suppression as a demanding and effortful strategy with high social costs, we showed that emotion suppression is an important response pattern for social interactions in age-diverse organizations. This counterintuitive finding suggests that in age-diverse companies these social benefits outweigh, from an organizational-level perspective, the individual costs of emotion suppression."
 
The study's findings are based on a survey of employees at 62 small to medium-sized companies in Germany ranging in size from 18 to 3,265 employees (mean: 352)  and representing a wide range of industries, including service (65%), manufacturing (20%), trade (10%), and finance and insurance (6%). A total of 7,802 employees (a mean of 75% per company) participated in an online survey which asked all of them their age and randomly assigned them to respond on one of three subjects: 1) the negative affective climate in their company (how often in the past six months workers had experienced four negative arousals -- angry, furious, frightened, disgusted); 2) emotion-suppression norms (for example, "When in the presence of my supervisor I keep my emotions to myself"); and 3) employee turnover intention (how often respondents had considered quitting their jobs during the past six months). In addition, members of the companies' top management teams were surveyed on several aspects of the firms' performance.
 
The surveys revealed age diversity to be significantly associated with negative affective climates in the companies, which was in turn inversely related to company performance (the more negative the climate, the worse the performance) and strongly related to amount of turnover intention.
 
At the same time, emotion suppression significantly reduced the association between age diversity and negative affect. Thus, in companies where emotional suppression was high, increased age diversity made little or no difference in terms of negative affective climate; in companies with low levels of emotional suppression, increased age diversity translated into a sharp boost in negative affective climate.
 
In conclusion, the study urges managers in highly age-diverse companies to "implement assessment tools such as employee opinion surveys, analyses of employee grievances, or focus group interviews," as well as to invest 'in emotion-regulation capacities" -- for example, through exercises in emotional control or through role-playing dealing with such potentially problematic situations as younger workers' supervising older  subordinates.
 

The study, entitled "When and why age diversity matters for organizations: A study on the role of affective processes," will be as among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management annual meeting, to be held in San Antonio from August 14th to 16th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 19,000 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics

Media Coverage:
Financial Times. Age-Old Bonds Make the Office Tick. (Monday, August 15, 2011).

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