You got a call from a Gen Z colleague. Here’s what to do
A An entertainment executive once told us he was confused by the language of Gen Z when it came to issues of diversity and identity. “Young people are joining us as new workers,” he said, “and they want forums to discuss ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ in our workplace.” Older employees are usually surprised by these requests: “Wow, we’re not like that This bad, isn’t it? »
If you’re a manager, educator, parent of young adults, or even just a social media user, you’ve probably noticed a generational divide on topics like race, gender, and LGBTQIA+ identity. Young people express their concerns about “racism”, “transphobia”, “oppression” and “violence” (among others) to their elders, while the younger generation legitimizes minor transgressions or disagreements. Intrigued and intimidated, older adults either engage in intergenerational conversations inauthentically or avoid them altogether. For example, a university president told us that he scripted all of his diversity speeches because he was afraid of improvising in a career-ending mistake. Likewise, one business executive told us there’s an even more radical solution: stop interacting with any young people at work.
Much ink has been spilled advising young people to tone down their rhetoric on these issues. However, the momentum that led to these rhetorical changes is not going away anytime soon. In previous decades, many groups lacked the numbers or power to vote. Thanks to changing demographics and the bold activism of marginalized groups, many young people now feel safe to challenge the status quo with increasingly direct words.
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As diversity and inclusion specialists who belong to Gen X and Millennials, respectively, we’re grateful that both sides of this divide are speaking to us—Gen Z students with advanced activism values, as well as Baby Boomer leaders struggling to do better. We are often encouraged to conflate what we perceive to be each other’s strengths: one generation that is too sensitive and quick to judge, while the other is too reactionary and slow to change.
In part because they have received less attention, we want to focus on the role of older generations in these stories. More specifically, when older generations are the recipients of overheated and seemingly unfair language, how can they break the cycle of anger and truly engage with what younger interlocutors have to say?
Feedback experts Douglas Stone and Sheila Hine note that people are prone to constructive feedback. “You need to improve your organizational skills” becomes “You’re a terrible employee who will never get promoted.” Stone and Hien suggest trying to see the comments “at a life size” by turning away from the “annoying soundtrack that plays in our head.”
Although narratives of identity rarely involve formal evaluations of work, they invariably include comments about who someone is or what they have done, whether it be a reference to their “privilege” or an accusation that they are “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic.” ,” or the suggestion that something they did was offensive or harmful. If you find yourself in these situations, you need to fine-tune the back-dimensioning in identity conversations by making sure that what you are hearing matches what your interlocutor is saying.
Let’s take a general example: Imagine that a member of Gen Z is reminded of your “white privilege,” “male privilege,” or any other form of privilege you have. How do you define the word “advantage”? If you’re like many of the people we work with, you’ve heard that your life has been easy or that everything you’ve achieved can be attributed to your team identity. Often, the other person means that you have advantages in some aspect of life (as we all do) and that these advantages, in addition to your talents and hard work, have given you a boost.
Conversations about privilege are not the only place where these misunderstandings arise. Another common and subsequent confusion occurs when people are accused of bias. US Senator John F. Kennedy once said, “It hurts to be called a racist. I think it’s one of the worst things to be called an American. In our work, we have noticed that many young people do not see it this way: they use the term “racism” unconsciously or systematically to refer to negative things. Many people are still unfamiliar with this way of talking about anxiety. If this applies to you, you may hear the statement “I think you’re racist” as the following statement: “I think you on the contrary most people in this society are racist. But the statement might be: “I think you as most people in this society are racist. Because of this misunderstanding, identity conversations can feel like a slow-motion car wreck. On the one hand, racism is “our” problem. The other interprets it as an “I” problem.
Learn more: How to work with Gen Z
A strong advocate for diversity and inclusion, our friend Rhonda, in her 50s, avoided such an accident after receiving letters from junior staff members who had just joined the creative side of her arts organization. The letter urged him and other top executives to change jobs. He used terms like “white supremacy” and “racial violence” that sounded like accusations of rank bigotry. Rhonda was surprised by the power of the language and asked for an explanation of the document. From our experience of reading similar messages, we feel that these words are open to many interpretations, including that leaders are unconsciously biased like everyone else.
Of course, Rhonda spoke directly to the staff and found the dialogue more antagonistic than she had feared. They did not accuse him or other leaders of fanaticism. Rather, they had suffered from bad experiences at previous jobs and wanted assurances that Rhonda’s organization would be different. Employees had productive discussions with Rhonda about what workplace reforms could and could not be implemented. Rhonda could not and could not give the staff everything they wanted. But he told them it was his responsibility to create an inclusive work environment, and said he would welcome more conversations to make sure he lives up to that responsibility.
We think Rhonda handled this situation impressively. Instead of assuming that the most extreme and personal view of the employees’ opinions was correct, he reached out to them to explain what they meant. Sometimes in these conversations, a person’s choice of words has more to do with you than their past experiences. If, like Rhonda, you pay attention to the gap between the other person’s words and their interpretation, you can save yourself a lot of grief. Listening to full-scale feedback allows you to process and learn from it.
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