Category Archives: Generations in the Workplace

OK, Generational Stereotype! Why Successful Intelligence Matters in the Workplace

It was during the last three hours of a three-day pre-retirement seminar when I felt like banging my head against my desk. Even though retirement planning can be a boring subject, I enjoyed the two-and-half days of information. Well-researched information I could put to immediate use in helping have a successful retirement.

Then, the last speaker talked about preparing psychologically for retirement. As retirement was still years off for me, I only half-listened. Fifteen minutes into the presentation, and the usual generational stereotypes popped up. I won’t repeat them here other to say that the Boomers were more than a little smug about their retirement prospects while they lamented the Generation X and Millennials’ retirement plans.

Since I started in the federal government as a Presidential Management Fellow in 1997, I have been to many pieces of training on the generations in the workplace. I remember when I, a Generation Xer, was the new kid on the block. Then, coming back to government in December 2008, the new generational star was the Millennials. Now, nearly eleven years later, it’s Generation Z.

Now, I do not entirely disregard generational differences. Differences between the generations are real. But, as research has shown (especially by Dr. Jennifer Deal), there is more in common between the generations than there are differences. I often point out that differences in gender, sexual identification, where you grew up, and other factors have more impact on your personality formation than just your generational cohort. Dr. Little’s personality research is a significant influence on my thinking.

I was at lunch with a colleague bemoaning a recent training on generational differences when she asked what I thought differentiated people. “Successful intelligence,” I immediately said.

I hadn’t thought about successful intelligence for years. It was in 1998 I discovered Dr. Sternberg’s book, The Triarchic Mind, and his concept of successful intelligence.

Chess set and chess board.

According to Dr. Sternberg, successful intelligence is:

“[D]efined as one’s ability to set and accomplish personally meaningful goals in one’s life, given one’s cultural context.  A successfully intelligent person accomplishes these goals by figuring out his or her strengths and weaknesses, and then by capitalizing on the strengths and correcting or compensating for the weaknesses.  Strengths and weaknesses are in terms of four kinds of skills:  creative, analytical, practical, and wisdom-based.  In particular, the individual needs to be creative in order to generate novel and useful ideas; analytical to ascertain that the ideas he/she has (and that others have) are good ones; practical in order to apply those ideas and convince others of their value; and wise in order to ensure that implementation of the ideas will help ensure a common good through the mediation of positive ethical principles.”

His concepts spurred me to work on increasing my creative and practical intelligence. My analytical intelligence was well-developed, but I was persuaded that I needed to balance my analytical intelligence by building up my creative and practical intelligence. In 1997, Sternberg released his follow-book, Successful Intelligence. I bought his book just as I started my Presidential Management Fellowship and decided that gaining my project management certification was a great way to increase my practical intelligence. In recent years, design thinking has helped me improve my creative intelligence.

I explained to my colleague I have noticed that the more successful people at work seem to have a good balance of analytical, creative, practical, and wisdom intelligence. In my admittedly informal observations, the workers with an optimal balance of the four intelligences are better colleagues, more productive, and accomplish much. It doesn’t matter the colleague’s race, gender, generational cohort, or other observable differences.

The best thing about successful intelligence is that it can be developed. As a training and development professional, I can help people to determine which intelligence they want to build. For example, I wanted to be more effective in implementing my ideas, and that is why I studied project management. Design thinking has helped me become better at generating creative ideas. With the proper coaching, mentoring, and training, any worker can reach a good balance between the four intelligences.

Therefore, I disregard generational stereotypes. Dismissing a person based on their generational cohort is as wrong as rejecting a person because of their gender, sexual identification, race, or similar difference. What I look for is how successfully intelligent the person is. But, before you judge other people’s successful intelligence, take the measure of your successful intelligence.

“You’re so dumb!:” The Next Generation

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

The above complaint was from Socrates. St. Thomas Aquinas lamented that the world would be left to an ill-prepared and careless youth. A year after I was graduated from college, I read Steve Allen’s Dumbth which “humorously” recounted tales of how Generation X didn’t know how to think.

Thirty years later it’s the Millennial Generation’s turn with The Dumbest Generation label (and Generation Z not far behind). “According to recent reports from government agencies, foundations, survey firms, and scholarly institutions, most young people in the United States neither read literature (or fully know-how), work reliably (just ask employers), visit cultural institutions (of any sort), nor vote (most can’t even understand a simple ballot). They cannot explain basic scientific methods, recount foundations of American history, or name any of their local political representatives. What do they happen to excel at is – each other. They spend unbelievable amounts of time electronically passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, savoring the thrill of peer attention and dwelling in a world of puerile banter and coarse images.”

The crux of the “dumb generation” argument is that their generation doesn’t have the knowledge that our generation has with the implication that our knowledge is inherently superior. It reminds me of summers that I spent at my grandparent’s farm where I was pitied because I didn’t know how to milk a cow, can vegetables, or could identify all the trees on the farm. “Didn’t I know anything?” they asked.

Then, I bought my grandparents a microwave oven, a VCR, and hooked their TV up to cable. Now I got to mutter under my breath, “didn’t my grandparents know anything?” As our workplaces become multi-generational, I am sure there is a lot of grumbling about the limitations of the different generations. And that is wrong.

Young girl walking with an old man.

The real issue is how to transform our organizations into learning organizations, so we capture the knowledge we already have and determine the knowledge we need. We produce new data and information at an astounding rate, and it is growing faster every year. The challenge is to determine what knowledge we need to keep, what knowledge we need to discard, and how to find the new knowledge we need. Like the way I cling to 1980s rock, knowledge we already have feels comforting and empowering, but we need to have the courage to let some of that go and embrace the new knowledge being produced. We also need to recognize that not all old knowledge is useless and should be discarded.

Others have written that the best learning is in our workplaces and with conversations with our colleagues. We can learn a lot from each other, and our organizations desperately need our efforts to keep the organizational memory growing and thriving. That means younger workers should not just immediately dismiss current practices and processes because that is how they used to do things. And older workers should not be defensive and dismissive when younger workers suggest new ways of doing the organization’s business.

Back when I worked at a state agency, I had a colleague who insisted on using Lotus 123 for his spreadsheets, although we had Microsoft Excel. He would bitterly complain when they tried to install Excel on his machine, and we would have to support Lotus 123 even though it was getting harder to do so every year. I then hit upon a strategy of having him teach me his spreadsheets. I would go over to his cubicle and learn the macros he created. I would recreate the macros in Excel and then show him how much more powerful they were and how the reports looked better with charting available to Excel. He was reluctant at first, but what sold him on upgrading is that he would not lose the original knowledge he had in his spreadsheets and macros but that they would be faster and more effective in a newer environment. Two years later, he relished his role as the “Excel Guru” who was the go-to guy about the intricacies of Excel spreadsheets.

So, maybe what is needed are fewer books about how stupid the other generations are and more books on how much we can learn from each other.