By Carol Kulik, Sanjeewa Perera and Christina Cregan
In some organisational contexts, mature-age workers experience ‘stereotype threat;’ they worry that managers and coworkers may have negative attitudes about mature-age workers. Eventually, stereotype threat leads people to disengage and lose motivation in their work. Organizations could manage mature-age workers more effectively if they:
- could identify the ‘high risk’ situations most likely to trigger stereotype threat and
- would invest in people management practices that reduce stereotype threat.
What was done?
Mature-age workers (45 years or older) responded to three waves of a survey conducted at 6-month intervals. The mature-age workers described their organisations in wave 1, reported their stereotype threat in wave 2, and reported their engagement in wave 3.
What did they find?
Mature-age workers who (a) reported to a young manager; (b) had mostly young coworkers; and/or (c) were employed in manual occupations experienced the highest levels of stereotype threat – and the lowest levels of engagement 6 months later. In these organisational contexts, mature-age workers were particularly aware of their age and expressed the greatest concern that managers and coworkers might have negative stereotypes about their age group.
However, two types of organisational practices reduced stereotype threat and increased engagement among mature-age workers. Mature-age workers reported lower stereotype threat and higher engagement when their organisation had adopted (a) high performance practices that focused on employee training, rewards, and participation or (b) mature-age practices that focused on age-specific training, job design, and career management opportunities. The high performance and mature-age practices had independent effects, so workers were most engaged when their organisations invested in both types of practices.
What does this mean?
Organisations need to be aware of the unintended signals that environmental cues send to mature-age workers. Mature-age workers may be most concerned about age stereotypes when they work with young people or in manual occupations where age-related physical declines would be most visible. But organisations can counteract these negative age signals by adopting practices that will engage and motivate an aging workforce.
Importantly, the research demonstrates that traditional high performance practices reduce, but do not eliminate, the negative consequences of stereotype threat. Organisations will enjoy the highest levels of engagement from their mature-age workers if they add age-specific practices to their management portfolio. These practices include training designed to upgrade mature-age worker skills, opportunities to redesign jobs to accommodate mature-age worker needs, and phased retirement program that allow mature-age workers to ease into retirement.
This summary is based on the paper:
Kulik, C. T., Perera, S., & Cregan, C. (2016). Engage me: The mature-age worker and stereotype threat. Academy of Management Journal, 59, 2132-2156.
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