Representation of the five generations.

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

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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.