How older professionals can adapt to casual young startups

On the TV show Younger, 40-something year old single mom Liza. realizes that relaunching her career will probably be tough, so she assumes the persona of a 26-year-old — and everyone falls for it.

In real life though, a lot of career advice seems geared to millennials but not their slightly older counterparts who have to adapt to them, in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. It can be tough trying to figure out how to navigate what can often feel like an alien terrain for those of us used to more traditional work environments.

If you’ve suddenly found yourself in a younger, more informal office setting like a startup, but you grew up in companies with formal procedures, you can feel a bit at sea. You may be wondering how to adapt without sticking out. Then again, maybe you don’t want to adapt, but you just want to figure out if it’s okay to stick out and do your own thing.

And while you’re at it, what do you do if you’re used to a traditional level of professionalism when everyone else shouts out their needs, considers hoodies appropriate work attire or can’t fathom the concept of workplace hierarchies? And more than that, how can you get by if that’s never been your own work experience?  

We asked Ken Druck, Ph.D., a mental health expert in aging and resilience, whose newest book  Courageous Aging will be out this fall, for advice on tackling some of these issues. Dr. Druck works with leaders in both business and government and has created training programs including Minding Your Business Culture and Reimagining Your Best Possible Future: Courageous Aging.

Here’s what he advises older employees just trying to figure out how to work with younger colleagues.

1. Take a Deep Breath: Humans are gregarious, and not fitting in is an extremely stressful human experience. That can lead to intense emotions. Dr. Druck believes “Everything good begins with a deep breath.” He says that if you find yourself in a horribly challenging situation at work “where it’s gotten to the point that you want to scream, choke somebody and throw them to the ground, quit, blare out “WTF!” or voice some such other expression of utter frustration, disbelief, disappointment, amazement or offense, it might be wise to step back, take a deep breath, soften your reaction and think about what response is most likely to get you the result you want.”

Advice: Take a beat before reacting to a younger coworker’s behavior, whether it’s a familiar attitude or a refusal to listen to instructions. You’ll probably have a better result if you’re calm enough to present the best possible solution.

2. Use Your Strengths: Rather than trying to change, or passively/aggressively resisting change, Dr. Druck advises trying to find a way to “gently and respectfully contribute (a la Robert De Niro in The Intern) some of the ideas, ways of communicating and doing business that you believe will strengthen the company.” And you don’t have to be in a hurry to make those changes. “Go slow and make your case but stay open to the possibility your ideas will not be adopted.” And if that happens, make like a Disney princess and just let it go.

Advice: Subtlety can count for a lot. Instead of pouting or protesting until you get your own way — or believing “direct orders” work any more — try to find more nuanced ways to get people to come around to your way of doing things. And if you fail? Choose your battles. You’ll probably win the next one.

3. Be Open Minded: While you’re at it, Dr. Druck says it’s important to “weed out old-fashioned notions, judgements and opinions of how people SHOULD show respect, dress or behave, that do not, in reality, have any substance or proven value when it comes to serving the (internal or external) customer or improving performance.” In other words, just because you think it’s the only way things should be done, doesn’t mean it’s the best way of getting things done. You don’t want to be the person insisting on a horse-and-buggy method when everyone else is looking at the Elon Musk high-speed train alternative. Consider that you may be wrong. 

Advice: Be flexible. Rigidity is not how things work any more. Just because you’ve been doing something the same way for a decade or more doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it, much less the best way. Try to be open to evolving ideals, especially in the workplace.

4. Leave Room to Grow: So, what happens if you’ve encountered a brave new work world? How about this: Why not embrace it instead of resisting it? 

Dr. Druck says “You have a choice to either resist change or embrace the opportunity to experience things in a new and different way — and possibly grow.” And sometimes your personality could be getting in the way as well. “If you’re the kind of person who is too tightly wound, you might want to lighten up a bit, keep an open mind and stay humble.  If, on the other hand, you’re wound too loosely, you might want to make sure that you assert yourself and communicate your needs to your boss, supervisor and co-workers.” But don’t overdo it, since he also says that over-adapting to a situation that’s not going to be good for you in the long-run is never a good idea. 

Advice: Sometimes a challenge that seems annoying can provide you with the impetus to change parts of your professional self that seemed stagnant. Not always, but every once in a while, you can learn from even the most annoying situation.

5. Test the Waters: Before you go full steam ahead and try to change everyone and everything around you, test things out.

There’s nothing wrong with putting your toe in the water to see what it’s like” according to Dr. Druck. “Caution can be a good thing and easing your way into unfamiliar territory allows for adjustments.  But sometimes it’s best to just get in the pool and find out you can swim (even with the sharks).  Either way, take time to reassure yourself that you’re going to be OK.” And if you’re still nervous, allow me to reassure you. I believe that the fact that you’re trying to figure all this out means you’ll also figure out a way to make positive changes if needed in your workplace.

Advice: Even if you feel frustrated beyond measure, sometimes rushing into making changes or criticizing others can lead to a monumental blow-up instead of things peacefully ending your way. Try something and then try something else. Keep going until you find the formula that works for both you and your co-workers.

6. Accept the Differences: And in case you’re wondering, due to the prevalence of telecommuting/text speak and the technologically evolved work space, work really is completely different for this generation than the ones that came before.

Dr. Druck says “There are significant differences between generations of workers, although some of us seem to have adapted more easily to using new technology than others.” Along with the technology comes the evolved methods of interaction and ways to make things better on a grand scale.

Dr. Druck finishes by saying “As with all turning all differences into opportunities, finding common ground with co-workers is often the best way to discovering how to turn our differences into complementary and collaborative opportunities that improve performance, produce quality and customer service.”

Advice for the ages: Unless you’re the exact same age from the exact same socioeconomic background and geography, chances are excellent that you and your co-workers have different technological skill sets. So what? We can all learn from each other and if it doesn’t work for you, feel free to discard it from your professional repertoire.