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“Gentoring” ™: Barriers to Bridging the Generational-Digital Divide – Traditionals and Boomer ‘Hot Buttons’” – Part III

In the aftermath of a recent “Bridging Generational Communication” workshop with a major DC utility, I coined two new concepts – “Gentor” ™ and “Gentoring” ™. (My Webmaster frequently notes how Spell-check is not impressed by my wordsmith proclivities!) And a showcase essay, “Gentoring” ™: Building a New Mentoring Role for Bridging the Generational-Digital Divide or “Don’t Be Afraid to Pet the Dinosaur!,” suggested drawing on the digital generations’ computer and multimedia facility to coax and coach an older generation of employees, helping their seniors become more technologically friendly and fluent. Clearly, expanding computer-Internet-multimedia competency is critical in today’s world. (Email [email protected] if you missed this essay, or check my “Google Blob”:

Now let’s consider some of the possible psychological and interpersonal as well as organizational and socio-cultural (including current economic) dangers and opportunities in designing and implementing a Gentoring program. First an examination of likely “hot button” issues for Traditionals (born before 1945) and Boomers (born 1945 to 1964) reluctant to cross the “techno lizard-digital wizard” divide yet potentially being techno-coached by GenXers and Millennials (born after 1965). The initial “Five of Ten Dino-Digital Defenses and Hot Buttons”:

1. Initial Denial, Dismissive or Disruptive Reaction

2. Authority-Status Shift

3. Family Dynamics

4. Jealousy, Displacement and Acting Out

5. Inadequacy and the “Intimate FOE”

Now for the final “Five Dino-Digital Defenses and Hot Buttons”:

6. Feeling Abandoned and Obsolete. Gentoring processes are often needed, if not implemented, during times of major organizational-operational change. And as I witnessed firsthand, just mixing generations, skillsets and cultures together during a period of uncertain job ebb and flow can produce a volatile reaction. Let me provide a most dramatic example from the mid-90s. During agency reorganization, a division of skilled crafts professionals were let go by one federal agency (located at a modern suburban campus) and were temporarily assigned to the dark and dank cavernous belly of the beast…the basement of the Department of Commerce. At the same time, these professionals, mostly senior white males (Traditionals and Boomers), were being threatened on two other fronts: (a) the possible loss of jobs through computerization and privatization (that is, allowing private industry to bid for federal contracts), and (b) the recent influx of younger women and racial minorities into the shop (who were more savvy with computers than the old-timers). Not surprisingly, during this vulnerable period, racial tension was rising and tempers were flaring. Some folks started pulling up KKK websites; others began bringing Louis Farrakhan tapes to work. And upper management didn’t know how to handle this transitional tempest…So they employed the ostrich defense, burying their heads in the operational sands.

Stress Doc to the Rescue

It wasn’t until an EEO analyst realized the government was hemorrhaging thousands and thousands (potentially hundreds of thousands) of dollars in formal grievance procedures that I was brought in to stop the bleeding and prevent full-scale escalation. In this critical situation, one-on-one interviews were bypassed; however, we held several face-to-face meetings between labor and management. We moved quickly into a full-day stress and anger management workshop with all parties. After the successful workshops came a series of team building interventions. (The grievance hemorrhaging ceased much to the government’s budgetary relief. Ultimately, many of the older employees retired and accepted a moderate buyout.) While this is an extreme case scenario, having younger folks Gentoring older individuals, especially during a tight economy and “lean and mean” job uncertainty or tightened career advancement, can surely contribute to an edgy learning dynamic.

7. Differential Reactions and Usage among the Generations. Overall, the Traditionals are the least comfortable and computer savvy across the digital divide. These folks definitely need coaching, though significant numbers of older Boomers are not much more fluent. (And even some GenXers compared to Milennial Mavens and the upcoming generation – Multi-MIDS ™: Multi-Media Instantaneous Digitals – seem more techno-lizard than wizard.) Actually, Boomers, in general, often view our ever-increasing dependence on computers and technology as a “mixed bag.” I myself have referred to the “e” in e-mail as really standing for “escape.” That is, people of all generations, but especially GenXers and Ys often actively avoid face-to-face (f2f) communication, especially during times of interpersonal conflict. (And the dangers of attempting to clarify or work out misunderstandings and conflicts virtually are glaringly obvious. Attitude and tone can jump off the screen without the benefit of contextual body language, facial gestures and live give-and-take.)

Generational Communication Styles and Substance

Clearly, the various generations have differentially adopted and adapted to the new communication/multimedia options like Skype and Smart Phone Apps to Kindles and I-Pads. Many in the earlier generations don’t understand the need for “Facebook Friends,” nor do they approve of endless tweeting and texting. Speaking of communication preferences, my cousin is a Boomer whose job requires coordinating with vendors around the globe. She finds that vendors of the younger generations basically will not answer their phones; they only respond to or send texts and emails. Again, face-to-face or voice-to-voice is being replaced by a less personal, more virtual exchange; it’s a source of consternation for many, especially those endorsing “Practice Safe Text” or not enamored with “the art of the short but sweet tweet” and other forms of social media.

8. Miscellaneous Hot Button Issues. Four “hot button” issues have become everyday dividers:

a) Focused Attention. Seniors questioning their juniors’ ability to sustain focused attention on a task or solving a problem; the boredom-frustration tolerance threshold seems to be progressively lowering; while this pattern may seem more pronounced for the more youthful employees, once you get plugged into “high speed” technology, waiting becomes more onerous for just about everyone,

b) Scanning vs. Understanding. Gen X and especially Gen Y/Millennials looking for quick (and Trads & Booms, and even GenXers might say) superficial responses or scanning at the expense of more thoughtful, careful and solid trial and error, understanding and/or deliberate problem solving, and

c) Entitlements vs. Earnings. I recall a Boomer business owner articulating what many of his generation are saying about too many of today’s younger employees: “They want their ‘rights’ without having to earn or shoulder ‘responsibilities’!” Let’s try a historical context. For example, a sense of “entitlement” can be particularly irksome for Boomers who helped pioneer the late-‘60s and ‘70s Women’s Movement. When these groundbreakers perceive younger women taking for granted new found opportunities and especially if Xers and Millennials are unaware of or seem disinterested in the history of the social-economic-political struggles and hard-fought efforts for change by their “older sisters,” real cross-generation frustration can arise.

d) Trophy for Winners vs. Trophy for All. Another common dismissive refrain heard by senior folks is the Millennial notion that everyone gets a trophy just for participation. The concept of merit seems to be getting short shrift. I think the younger generations still has work to do in selling the “soft skills” and “it takes a village” value and meaning of “inclusion” as opposed to a competitive edged world of winners and losers.

9. “E & E” vs. “I & I”. Many in the older generation believe one is productive by combining “Effectiveness” (Doing the right thing) and “Efficiency” (Doing the thing right), along with unselfish team effort. For the latter, the prevailing mantra might be, “There’s No ‘I’ in Team.” Despite their facility and infatuation with “smart technology,” numbers of colleagues see the younger side of the digital divide trumping the pair of “E”s with “I”s, that is, Gen X & Ys need to establish their own “idiosyncratic identity” (not a big surprise in the age of websites, blogging and Facebook). Clearly, doing “your own thing” in a culture extolling “workplace norms” will trigger some tension in-house and across the generational-digital divide. And if not feeling challenged or stimulated, young minds and legs (not to mention mouths) just might be off and running. But don’t despair…the Stress Doc ™ is here with another one of his pithy maxims to improve productivity and morale.

When “I”s can “C”: Individual and Interactive Synergy

While not getting into solutions at this point, let me just say that there are a pair of “I”s that have the potential to be pillars of a generational bridge: “Individuality” and “Interactivity.” As a brief explanation, for example, I’ve always had a somewhat unsettled feeling about the above truism, “There’s No ‘I’ in Team.” I don’t know if it’s my own ego needs or an appreciation of the complexity of group process-motivation that keeps me from unconditionally embracing the oft-quoted saying. I’ve amended the motivational mantra, thusly: There May Be No “I” in Team”…but there Are Two “I”s in Winning! And while there are several interpretive possibilities, let’s go with one that allows our “I”s to “C”: highly motivated and morale-driven teams possess two winning “I”s that are a dynamic if not paradoxical blend of “Individual Creativityand “Interactive Community.”

Benefits of Blending Creativity and Community

If we can develop a team and workplace atmosphere that:

a) encourages individual and team exploration and innovation,

b) helps the larger community open up to new perspectives and meaningful innovation – through “flexibly focused” yet “out of the box” experimentation trials; remember, creative minds tend to gravitate toward the edge of chaos, then pull (or may need to be pulled) back,

c) challenges/supports the mind-opening maverick to engage with the “Tried (and) True (while also generating the) New” (to borrow a theme from my Metro DC-NASW Chapter’s recent Social Work conference), and

d) helps nurture a stronger sense of commitment by the “individual creator” to colleagues, collectives and the company – generating a mutual, optimally stimulating “interactive community” – then we are linking and playing generational win-win hands.

10. Culture of Authority. Popular psycho-cultural commentator, Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), shares a vignette that has great significance for “hot button” barriers across the generational divide. In the 1980s, the Columbian and Korean airlines were reporting a statistically aberrant (high) number of fatal air crashes. Typically, there were two people in the cockpit, the senior pilot and the co-pilot, a junior officer. As it turned out, who was flying the airplane proved extremely relevant to the forensic investigation. Any ideas why? Well, the older, senior officer was flying the plane and, no, the problem wasn’t the pilot being too casual. The problem was cultural and status/age-related in nature. The junior pilot was the navigator. Upon first sensing trouble, he was not able to decisively-aggressively warn his older colleague that the latter was placing the craft in danger, about to make a fatal mistake, e.g., flying toward a cloud covered mountain. According to the “black box” and control tower records, by the time the co-pilots warnings took on a sufficiently urgent tone, if they ever did, it was too late. Ingrained in the junior pilots of these countries was a culture of subservience to authority and age, including indirectness and subtlety in all manner of verbal and nonverbal communication. Sometimes, the junior navigator ignored the visual gauge evidence, assuming that the pilot (because of his seniority) must know what he’s doing. It was not his role to contradict the authority. Whatever the thought-behavior pattern, the result was junior pilot passivity and lack of decisive intervention in the face of critical danger.

A Down to Earth Example

Ironically, and fortunately, I experienced a less dramatic example of this cultural dynamic during training with soldiers at Ft. Hood. A twenty-something male soldier shared having problems explaining to his senior officer why there were some operational delays in moving stock from a warehouse. (And it was this sharing that prompted my telling the above Outliers vignette.) At the end of the training, after most of the soldiers had filed out, the soldier came up to me and said, “Your story had a lot of meaning for me…I was born in Columbia!”

Gentoring and the PDI

So what are the implications of this critical-cultural story and Gentoring? Clearly, when younger employees are partnering with more senior employees one must be aware of multicultural sensitivities, socialization sensibilities and emotionally charged values, especially related to the Triple “A” – Authority-Age-Aggression. Actually, Gladwell mentions a research concept, the “Power Distance Index” (PDI) as underlying whether communication between generations of various cultures is assertive and direct or passive and indirect. He poses three influential questions:

1) how much a particular culture value and respect authority?

2) how afraid are employees to express disagreement with superiors?

3) do individuals/subordinates expect and accept that power is distributed unequally? (For example, one might say that the once prevailing cultural PDI is certainly being challenged across the Middle East.)

What’s the PDI ambiance in your organization or shop? It will definitely influence the quality of your generational bridge, and could well make or break a Gentoring Program! Actually, a rigid or intimidating PDI ambiance can stifle open communication and effective coordination within and throughout all organizational levels.

Oh yes, one final footnote: All Korean pilots eventually received Western style “assertiveness training” and in a triumph of “nurture over (cultural) nature” their safety records soon matched the industry standard.

Closing Summary

“Gentoring” ™: Barriers to Bridging the Generational-Digital Divide – Traditionals and Boomer ‘Hot Buttons’” – Parts II and III have highlighted potential psychological and interpersonal as well as organizational and socio-cultural (including current economic) “hot button” issues for Traditionals (born before 1945) and Boomers (born 1945 to 1964) reluctant to partner with their younger, digital savvy colleagues. Clearly, in today’s workplace and society overall, crossing the dinosaur-digital divide is mission and morale critical. The “Ten Dino-Digital Defenses and Hot Buttons” for designing and implementing a Gentoring program are:

1. Initial Denial, Dismissive or Disruptive Reaction

2. Authority-Status Shift

3. Family Dynamics

4. Jealousy, Displacement and Acting Out

5. Inadequacy and the “Intimate FOE”

6. Feeling Abandoned and Obsolete

7. Differential Reactions and Usage among the Generations

8. Miscellaneous Hot Button Issues

9. “E & E” vs. ” I & I”

10. Culture of Authority

And Part IV will examine “hot buttons” for Gen Xers and Millennials when having to Gentor the computer averse or stressed of the more senior generations. Until then… Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing “Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also had a rotation as Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite”www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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