The Times They are a Changin’: Connecting a New Generation to OE
By Sarah Redgrave
My friend’s daughter used You Tube to teach herself how to repair her mom’s iPhone. She ordered the replacement part, took the phone apart, rebuilt the wiring, and put it back together. She’s 10. The phone now works perfectly. My friend was both grateful and frightened.
We all have a preconceived notion of what it is to be 10, 15, 20, 25 etc. But the younger generations today keep blasting those perceptions out of the water.
Imagine how much more fun it would be for them (and us) if we could step out of our own way and really see young people for who they are. What do they know that will astound us? How can we build a trusting culture where people are admired for what they bring, rather than admonished for the year they were born?
OE holds a critical key to connecting generations, because at its core it is about unlocking potential in people. And there are entire generations of young people in front of us who will rock the world if they are given the space to unlock their potential. Let’s try something that it seems no older generation has tried before. Let’s help them.
What’s in a name? A lot.
When any group confronts the specter of its younger generation there is almost a universal distain for what they see. “Beatniks!” “Hippies!” “Metal heads!” “Mall rats!” “Goths!” “Hipsters!” — none of these names were particularly flattering at the time. Almost all were bequeathed by the older generation to paint the “new” generation into a corner. Each of us has been both the victim and the perp.
Quick test: If someone you love is between the ages of 23 and 38, they are a Millennial. And If you have ever found yourself remarking how amazing it is that this person that you love, and only this person, is “so different” from a “typical” Millennial, then you are in good company. What if it’s not your loved one who is breaking the “rule” of what a Millennial is like, what if the idea of the rule itself is what is broken?
Let’s stop painting a generation with a brush of one color, and let’s stop using the clever word-of-the-day that’s designed to reinforce a bias. Instead, let’s assume that the common thread between all groups is their human experience. Each person is just that, his or her own person. Not defined by narrow descriptors, but defined by their own backgrounds and experiences. And the faster we can embrace that reality, the faster we can start to unlock the potential each young person has. And maybe even grow ourselves along the way.
Starting with a foundation of respect
In October 1977, Cpt. Michael R. Perrault (Fort Benjamin Harrison) penned an essay for the OE Communique called “Organizational Effectiveness for the Greensuiter“. He was trying to explain why OE wasn’t resonating in the field. His basic premise was that, quite simply, it wasn’t being made immediately applicable to the incredibly complex lives of “today’s” folks.
He goes on to quote Lieutenant Colonel S. Yoram Yair of the Israeli Army, saying “…compare the battalion or company commander of today with those of 20-30 years ago, in any Army. You will find his time spent on maintenance, administration, and training is four to six times greater than that of his counterpart 30 years ago. His range of knowledge has expanded; today, he must make use of the combined arms team, he must constantly integrate artillery fire, helicopter support, close air support from the Air Force, new missile systems, other electronic gear and night vision devices, to mention only a few.”
I would argue the same holds true, and has in fact been amplified, today. The younger generations will need to navigate a workforce that is both deeply connected (through technology and social media) and vastly separated (across continents, maybe even planets, who knows?). The kids entering the workforce right now are staring down the barrel of a future that no one can possibly imagine, it’s up to them to build it. There is no blueprint. Innovation isn’t a specialization any more; it’s not even impressive; it’s a base-line expectation of anyone graduating elementary school.
Can you imagine that pressure? Try to. Try to imagine entering into a workforce where ones ability to be creative and innovative is looked on with about the same level of adoration as one’s ability to brush one’s teeth.
If we can start to appreciate that the younger generations are facing stresses we could never have imagined, we can start to build bridges. We can start to understand the challenges ahead of them, and respect them for facing up to those challenges.
But before we can use that respect to build bridges, we have to understand that perceptions run in both directions. And just as we need to change our perception of the younger generations, there’s a good chance that we also need to help them change their perceptions of us.
Don’t trust anyone over 30 (or, “perception is reality”)
In the same issue of the OE Communique where Cpt. Perrault discussed the complexity younger generations are facing, Cpt. Rick Sayre (Fort Carson) was, in my opinion, treading on much more dangerous territory. He was giving his observations and opinions on Women in the Army. In fact, it was this article that got me reading through that issue of the OE Communique at all. I saw the title and I was certain I was settling in for 20 minutes of reading and feeling furious about some man’s opinion of my gender’s “weaknesses”. I was wrong. Cpt. Sayre, in about 5000 words, essentially says “women only fail in the army when we don’t believe in their abilities”. It was a splash of cold water. I was certain I knew what the piece was going to say. And I was dead wrong.
What are the younger generations thinking about us? What are their perceptions? What are they wrong about? Until we can change their perception of us, it is their reality.
There are likely some pretty locked-in points of view about us. And they’re probably not flattering ones. The good news is that we are in control of smashing those perceptions. And we can do that by being the one thing a younger generation will not expect us to be: good listeners who respect them and want to help them shine.
I keep re-reading Andre Auw’s posthumous post from July 4th (Learning How to Listen) and thinking about applying that good advice to my relationships with the young people around me. Actively listening to their realities, without trying to paint their experiences with our brush, is a powerful tool in our arsenal. We should use it. Because once we can smash through a younger generation’s perceptions of us, we can build trust and we can find where our true value lies — how we can help instead of hinder.
Our privilege and obligation
For so long, people who were older were able to rely on age and “experience” as the value we brought to the world. I haven’t ever rebuilt an iPhone like my friend’s 10-year-old daughter did. While I’ve never asked her, I’m certain that my friend’s kid believes my age and “experience” do nothing for me. We shouldn’t expect young people to respect us because we have more mileage. But we can all earn each other’s respect. That’s where we find the value we bring the generations around us.
Fundamental to OE is making sure that everyone is positioned to do the work they are best at, so that everyone is working together towards something bigger than themselves. Our value comes from knowing this and knowing that if we can help younger generations unlock their own potential, they will shine.
Our job is not to assign young people a role, but to act as amplifiers for who they already are. To give them platforms they might not otherwise have. To shine a bright light on them and let them grow unencumbered by our, or anyone’s, preconceptions. We should be advocates.
There is a difference between being a mentor and being an advocate. Mentorship is important, and personal. But if we let ourselves stop at mentoring, we stop short. We risk falling into the trap that we are graciously passing along our wisdom, and “aren’t we wonderful”. What we would be missing is our obligation to be an advocate. Mentors push their own perceptions, advocates let people shine. Advocates go out of their way to celebrate and encourage the people around them, let’s do that.
OE: The Next Generation
Organizational Effectiveness is brilliantly transferable from generation to generation because, at its core, it is about the heart. OE will flex and adapt more easily than almost any other practice because it is a reflection of the people in a place, it is the experience of being human.
How can we help make Cpt. Perrault proud and make OE accessible to younger generations? Let’s help them understand OE by helping them harness its power and feel its impact. Let’s give them the experience of being heard, of being respected, and of being amplified. And then connect the dots so they can do that same good work for the generations that will follow them.
As Bob Dylan so famously said: [Our] old road is rapidly aging, please get out of the new one of you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a changin’.