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Creating An Intergenerational Mindset

Guest Post by Dan Oestreich

Many years ago I listened to the late Santiago Rodriguez, then Director of Multicultural Programs at Apple Computer. He was discussing trends at the time in training programs to broaden diversity awareness in organizations. He recounted how many organizations had developed sessions to elaborate the primary characteristics of various races and cultures. The goal was to help people be sensitive to differences in everything from language to dress to social norms and behavior. This led to a lot of note taking – what are the characteristics of Asian-Americans?  What about Hispanics? What should you know about people from Africa or India?  What’s the right handshake? How should you handle eye contact?  It was clear, Santiago concluded with some exasperation, that such an approach was doomed to failure.  How could you ever know the characteristics of every culture, and how could you know how it applied to your specific relationships? It seemed little more than well-intended stereotyping.

Creating an Intergenerational Mindset

The real challenge, he said, was teaching people the skills of getting to know each other across their differences, to be truly curious, open learners about one another. Instead of people wondering, “What do I know about this or that culture?” the emphasis should be on teaching people to ask questions with an open, inviting tone. “Suppose, for example, you notice someone new at work and have struck up a conversation or two on topics of mutual interest. With some rapport and the right context, you might ask, ‘I notice you have a slight accent. Where are you from?’”

“Now, what other questions might you gently ask?” he inquired of us. And then, “Do you know how to really get to know someone very different than yourself, without it sounding invasive or judging? If you do,” he continued, “then you won’t need to remember all those potentially discriminatory characteristics. You’ll learn by connecting to a real person instead of hypothesizing and trying to remember a lot of things that may not apply at all.”

As I read the net these days, tapping into the various discussions of generations, from Pluralists and Millennials to Baby Boomers, I am reminded of Santiago’s advice, inviting differences to spur curiosity and connection rather than stereotyping. Certainly, we have grown in our awareness since I heard him speak in the 1980’s. We wouldn’t say today, “Well, here’s a list of the five most salient features of Puerto Rican employees — so now you know how to be sensitive to them.” Yet on the net, it’s easy to find such reductive and restrictive language about other generations, most notably these days, regarding so-called Millennial colleagues. And worse, the goal doesn’t even seem to be sensitivity, but more what to look out for since these reductive characteristics are often negative.

There’s a certain irony about the American workplace that despite ongoing complaints about low-trust “us vs. them” relationships at work — between departments or between layers of an organization – between bosses and employees — we’re more than happy to indulge in a little intergenerational bullying and bashing that has exactly the same effect: a reduction in trust and the loss of workplace community.

What’s underneath these propensities to disconnect and disengage from one another is fear, of course. Fear and competition, and maybe the need to be better than someone else. We belong to, in fact, an individualistic, privilege- and status-oriented culture, one on the shadow side that can thrive at times on categorization and superiority to others. Too often we treat differences as threats, and no matter what the difference — race, gender, culture, age – the criticism amounts to the same thing: the bolstering of a “me” or an “us” through generalities and dismissal of others whose worlds we do not know or understand.

The opposite of this sort of stereotyping-as-security-blanket is the beautiful work of community building, the act of reaching out to others across the differences we see, hear, or feel. The opposite, in terms of age differences, is respecting the fact that generations are part of a natural cycle, one that will be present always, one to be honored and explored as a source of profound learning, one that represents precious social fabric. There will always be children, young adults, middle-aged adults, and elders in human society, waves of the ocean that stretches around the world, no two waves “breaking” in exactly the same way.

That process of reaching out across the divides is frequently called “inclusion,” but that word too often suffers from abstraction. Let me instead simply reiterate the questions Santiago inspired thirty years ago. Do you know how to get to know someone different than yourself? Do you actually have the skill to do that? Do you have the courage and the will to welcome another into yourself who is not exactly like you?

These are good questions, questions that have layers and can mature through time as our understanding grows and we cross our own generational boundaries. They are questions that can last a lifetime.

 

Image by Dan Oestreich, Oestreich Associates, rights reserved.

Guest Author

Dan OestreichDan Oestreich is a leadership and culture change consultant located near Seattle. For over twenty years he has offered coaching, training and facilitation services that facilitate the growth of leaders and build high-trust, high performance organizations. To find out more about Dan, you can access his website and blog. You can also email him.

Guest Author

Guest Author

From time to time, guest writers contribute to Thin Difference. Topics include leadership, career development, creativity, and mindfulness. Our mission is to "Cross the gap and lead with a new story line," inspiring Millennial leaders.

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  • Hoda Maalouf

    Dear Dan

    Can we create a beautiful painting with one simple color? Or create music with
    one single note? Definitely not!

    Eating the same food again& again would lead to nutrient deficiency. Similarly, meeting, talking & working with like minded people is BORING and would lead to
    deficiency in challenges & creativity.

    A working environment that mixes people with different background, interests, age groups and skills is a challenging & exciting environment that keeps everyone on
    the creative edge.

    Now regarding your Question if we have the skill to do it: My answer is if we LOVE to do it then we will learn how to do it even if we don’t know how.

    On the personal level, I must admit my passion in life is diversity, that’s what keeps my fire going. And I enjoy crossing the boundaries between age group, culture, knowledge type, gender, etc.

    I’ve done it before, I am doing it now & keep on doing it because that what keeps me going, happy & fulfilled. And, that’s the main reason why I’ve started the G+ community “Inspiring the young & hungry”.

    Great Post as usual, Thank You Dan!

    Hoda

    • Dan Oestreich

      Dear Hoda

      How wonderful your answer to the question about skill. Yes, I completely agree — if we LOVE to engage, love to “cross the boundaries,” then skill isn’t really as important as the practice of just doing it and the learning that comes with it. The sense I get from your lovely comment is one of embracing. Embracing life, culture, others; opening to a life that is a feast! How cool is that!? Thank you so much for sharing here, Hoda. As always, you bring such inspiration. All the best. Dan

  • johanngauthierakamrrenaissance

    Dear Dan,
    I am so happy Hoda led me to your post as she shared it via the #Leadwithgiants Facebook community. I wish to thank her but most of all thank you.
    Once again your post move me beyond imaginable words.
    Knowing how much depth you bring to your posts and throughts and how respectful you are I really command you challenging the status quo as you are doing.
    Your questions really stand out for me:
    “Do you know how to get to know someone different than yourself? Do you actually have the skill to do that? Do you have the courage and the will to welcome another into yourself who is not exactly like you?”
    With these questions we could train leaders forever ! Seriously.
    I raise one with you: are we asking the right questions in how we train leaders to manage a culturally diverse workplace?
    I’m Canadian but I believe this dialogue is universal.
    Namasté.
    Johann

    • Dan Oestreich

      Johann! I send you great appreciation for your kind words and your insightful question about questions! You asked whether the right questions are being asked to help people develop as leaders. I wouldn’t be able to make a broad judgment about that, but I do know that the most powerful part of that process is when we begin to ask ourselves the deeper questions rather than depend on others to do so and also to provide the answers. Can I ask myself who I am, what my values are, what I long for in life? Can I ask myself how I feel about my relationships, what they mean to me, how I would like to connect and why? All of these, and an infinite array of others are what I would call “leadership questions.” I sense that you are the kind of person who, like me, loves the inquiry at depth! Thank you again! Dan

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  • http://exemplar1.tumblr.com/ Jack Davis

    I was led here by Hoda reposting this on G+ in the Lead With Giants community. I posted a long comment there and thought I would copy it here as well:

    * I thoroughly believe in the principle of “iron sharpens iron.” I love spirited discussions about topics where we all learn and grow from it. I do not mean arguments, but lively discussions where everyone is free to put in their viewpoint without fear of backlash or exclusion for thinking differently.

    * I am a firm believer that everyone has their stupid place. Especially in this world of specialization. I could elaborate, but I don’t think it’s necessary. We all need each other to help fill in the gaps where we are lacking in intelligence.

    My daughter (who is 31) has taught me many things. Some of the most profound things I have ever heard have come out of her mouth. The same goes for my fun-loving grandsons! They are 9 and 11. I have friends of all ages, from the teens at our church up to 80+ year old gents that hang out with my dad.

    * Lastly, I am a firm believer that everyone can have some input into my life. Sometimes the reason I learn so much is because I’m always looking for something to learn. There have been times I have learned something from a man digging through the trash.

    One thing I would like to share here is what I learned from a 6 year old… Last summer I was on tour with a Christian children’s ministry [teamxtremeministries.org] . For one of the services, we threw chocolate kisses and mini candy bars out into the audience. It was part of an object lesson. After I sat down, a little 6 year old girl came up beside me and offered me one of her Hershey’s kisses. I said “Oh sweetie, that’s your chocolate, you can keep it.” Her response floored me. She said “Chocolate tastes better when you share it.”

    I’ll never forget that. That day, an adorable little 6 year old girl was my leader. Even if just for a moment…

    Oh, and I accepted her gift of chocolate. :)

    • Dan Oestreich

      Jack, thank you for moving your comment. It is so touching! How penetrating the 6 year old’s wisdom! I love how you connect this to leading, “if just for a moment…” When we accept others as our leaders and teachers rather than needing to lead or needing to teach at all times, relationships can open up so beautifully. Thank you again for such a loving story and your own wise observations. Many best wishes, Dan.

  • Alli Polin

    Absolutely wonderful! Reminds me of an article that I recently read about an athlete with a missing limb. She wrote that a child was looking at her… a lot… and she wished that she would ask her about her missing leg so they could talk about it but the child never asked. When we go with the stereotypes, we may be polite and do the right thing on the surface but we miss out on the uniqueness, depth and stories of people we encounter. Great post, Dan!

    • Dan Oestreich

      Alli, thank you. Your story is heart-breaking. When we makes things undiscussable in the way you’ve written, we then open ourselves to projections, inaccuracies, and fears of all kinds. You’ve pointed out so well, Alli, how awkwardness and the fear of being impolite closes down our relationships and our minds. All the best! Dan

  • Dan Forbes

    I wonder if the focus on how wonderful and different millennials are isn’t adding fuel to the fire. I for one think all the emphasis on separating leaders/talent into labeled age-brackets is not necessarily helpful. The skills, qualities, traits, needed from Leaders is the same across all generations. Leadership is Leadership. We know it when we see it and when we don’t.

    • http://www.thindifference.com/ Jon M

      Agree, Dan Forbes. That is why it is so important for two generations to sit down and have a conversation about their experiences and learn from each other. No matter the generations, we need to embrace and engage the next one up. Thanks! Jon

    • Dan Oestreich

      Yes, I agree with that, too, Dan. The comparison of generations, as if they were of different value, sets people up and creates walls. Thanks for pointing out this aspect of the problem! Best to you. Dan

  • Blair Glaser

    What an important post, Dan. One of the things I find so tricky about this particular piece of discrimination is that the difference is not always so obvious. What I have discovered is the older members of the workplace project their own selves onto the younger members, which doesn’t generally happen with a racial or cultural difference. So when the younger folk don’t act as the elders were expected to when they were of that age, they experience it as a personal affront.
    This brings the fear of which you speak to a whole other level, one in which older people in this position are forced to question so much about what they learned and the choices they made (or feel they couldn’t make). And apparently disdain is much easier to manage than regret.
    Thanks for the great post.

    • Dan Oestreich

      Blair, this is so insightful. I very much like the way you separate out the kinds of discrimination and your explanation of the pain those who are older might experience in their contact with those who are younger. Are we truly willing to confront our own regrets, our own life-choices, owning them as choices? I believe you are so right that dealing with the losses is at the core, and our failure to do so is the greatest loss of all. Best to you! Dan

  • http://www.hitenvyas.com/blog Hiten Vyas

    Hi Dan,

    Wonderful post indeed, and Jon, thanks for having Dan over.

    Dan, your post got me thinking about the problem of stereotyping people from different groups to us. I think one way this can be dealt with is through looking for the sameness in all the people we come into contact with, and then exploring different insights each groups can bring to the party, based upon different cultures and ways of doing things. However, we need to ensure that we resist from moving into stereotyping and it requires a lot of maturity from everyone who is participating.

    Thank you.

    • Dan Oestreich

      Thank you, Hiten — you are so right about needing maturity in resisting the stereotyping. I think one key in understanding is listening in to our own private reactions to others and the implicit assumptions they are based on — which in turn feed the stereotypes. A friend of mine who is a trainer makes a practice of surveying his audience as they arrive for a session. He tells me he watches for people who may seem a bit more isolated or alone — often people who for some reason are different from others in the class. He then makes a point of welcoming them and inviting them to the class, building rapport in polite, positive and personal ways. It’s just a start, but it often immediately begins to break down the assumptions that might be operating in the moment. Again, much appreciation for your insights, Hiten!

      All the best
      Dan

  • Karen Jolly

    Dan, your article awakens us all to the gift of curiosity. I wonder if any of us realize the power of this gift. We develop curiosity naturally as children, but often are taught that asking questions is annoying, so as we mature, we shut down this natural desire to learn from asking questions.

    If however, we nurture this natural curiosity within us and develop it through sincerely reaching out and asking questions, we automatically cut through the lines of stereotypes and judgements. We can bridge any gap with sincere curiosity. Everyone in life simply wants to be loved, understood and appreciated for who they are. As children we didn’t fear walking up to people from different age groups, cultures, backgrounds – we were curious to learn about them. Why should this ever change?

    Thank you for reminding me to work on my natural curiosity and to develop a deeper desire to learn from everyone I meet.

    • Dan Oestreich

      Karen, thank you for these really valuable observations about the role of curiosity. We do learn to close down, based on conditioning. But we can reclaim that “gift,” make it conscious and useful and genuinely attentive to those around us. We have options and opportunities to cross the divides, and sincere curiosity can be a wonderful starting point.

      Much appreciation to you
      Dan

  • http://www.creatingcareerswithconfidence.com/ Edward Colozzi

    Thank you for your brilliant and important post Dan. The core of your post is based on authentic respect and love for others and totally fits our common human characteristic ~ Are Relational Beings and We Are All Connected to ONESpirit.

    I often share with others the following: We must strive to Celebrate our wonderful Diversity, and Honor our Sacred Sameness. Keep up your excellent writings Dan:) EdC

    • Dan Oestreich

      Thank you so much, Ed! And thank you for the beautiful reminder that our diversity is a cause for deep celebration and joy. Your words are profound!

      All the best
      Dan

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