Teaching old dogs new tricks

There is a flawed assumption that being old means you are set in your ways and not easy to teach new skills. This is not always the case and is being proved wrong time and time again.

Among those that fear change and the ever increasing speed of the world, it is usually the older members of the workforce who feel the most confronted. People who grew up and set the tone of their working lives in a very different world to now can often find themselves feeling very uneasy.

If you manage people that are set in their ways and struggling to adapt to change and the new set of skills required in a job they’ve been doing for a long time, you need to realise it may be very difficult for them to find a middle ground.

It is very easy to dismiss someone as ‘too old’. ‘Too’ meaning they are at an age where they are beyond help. This is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking for two reasons:

  • age and experience bring a lot to the workplace; and
  • learning styles and the motivation to learn can change dramatically between generations.

This means there is opportunity to teach ‘old dogs’ new tricks providing you tap into a learning style that is familiar and comfortable to them.

We are seeing many older people who love their computers, smartphones, iPads and the new world this brings to them. Maybe they are not as fast as those who are coming out of school and university – but that doesn’t mean we should assume an older person is useless with computers.

Once a skill is learned – and maybe that takes some people longer – it will be put to use in interesting ways by people of all ages. The issue is sometime in the tolerance levels of the teacher to accommodate different learning styles and speeds.

In today’s world, knowledge of the past may be a disadvantage

The world has changed so much in recent years that knowledge of the past can be an obstacle to learning and adaptation. The reason for this is that it creates an expectation in the user that things will follow a certain sequence. Take, for example, the shift to cloud hosting of files and data. It clashes completely with the older world view of having things stored in paper files and/or hard drives that are local and found. It may lead to mistrust of the new technology and might create a barrier to learning.

Get people involved in discovery

Learning isn’t about getting told something; it’s about discovering something that is useful and then applying it to remember the skill/information. In order to get people to really learn, you have to remove the barriers to discovery. If the learning is technology based then people need to have some basic things explained to them. Removing the unknown and the fear of error gives people the confidence to learn.

Don’t criticise lack of knowledge/mistakes

The best way to learn is to make a mistake. Unfortunately, there are many areas of the workplace where mistakes just cannot be afforded – but allowing some leniency for people to hone skills and build confidence is key. Doing the opposite, by criticising and ridiculing, will crush a person’s confidence and make them retreat to old ways.

Celebrate new ways, encourage suggestions, reward improvements

Reward and celebration creates an atmosphere of growth because it spreads beyond the person receiving the reward. If you can create an environment of skill sharing in the office where everyone brings their respective skills to the table then you will be amazed at the improvement in productivity and innovation within the group. The great thing is that everyone, not just managers, can start the ball rolling.

The workplace is a demanding place, but it is downright scary for those that feel the world is passing them by. Valuable contributions can still be made by the senior group of the workforce, providing they are integrated into the team to build skills to an adequate level and they are given the confidence and means to share their strengths.

Have empathy – everyone will be a senior at some stage and as each year goes on our workforce retains more and more older people!

Eve Ash has produced a learning library of over 500 workplace training videos, including comedy titles: Accepting Change, Embracing New Ideas and ‘straight’ titles: Managing a Mature Age Workforce, Adult Learning Principles and Change without Anxiety.


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