A senior leader at an entertainment company once told us he was bewildered by the language of Generation Z on issues of diversity and identity. “Young people join us as new hires,” he said, “and they want forums to discuss the ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ in our workplace.” Older employees typically reacted to these demands with shock: “Whoa—we’re not that bad, are we?”
If you’re a manager, an educator, a parent of young adults, or even just a social media user, you’ve probably noticed this generational gap on topics such as race, gender, and LGBTQIA+ identity. Young people raise concerns about “racism,” “transphobia,” “oppression,” and “violence” (among others) to members of older generations for what the latter believe to be minor transgressions or legitimate disagreements. Puzzled and fearful, older people then enter cross-generational conversations inauthentically or completely avoid them. For instance, a university president shared with us that he scripts all speeches touching on diversity, because he worries he might otherwise ad lib his way into a career-ending error. Similarly, a corporate executive informed us that he had an even more drastic solution: cease interacting with any young person at work.
A lot of ink has been spilled advising young people to tamp down their rhetoric on these issues. Yet the dynamics that have led to these rhetorical shifts won’t disappear any time soon. In earlier decades, many groups lacked the numbers or the power to speak up. Thanks to changing demographics and the courageous activism of marginalized groups, many young people now feel safer to challenge the status quo in increasingly blunt terms.
As diversity and inclusion scholars who belong to Gen X and the millennial generation respectively, we are grateful both sides of this divide talk to us—Gen Z students with cutting-edge activist values, as well as Boomer leaders struggling to do better. People often call on us to bridge the gap between what each side perceives as the excesses of the other: a generation too sensitive and quick to condemn, and another too reactionary and slow to change.
In part because less attention has been paid to them, we want to focus on the role of older generations in these conversations. More specifically, when older generations are on the receiving end of language that feels overheated and unfair, how can they break the cycle of outrage and really engage with what younger conversation partners are trying to say?
Feedback experts Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen point out that people tend to blow constructive feedback out of proportion. “You need to improve your organizational skills” becomes “You’re a terrible employee who will never get promoted.” Stone and Heen suggest trying to see feedback at “actual size” by turning down the “ominous soundtrack playing in our minds.”
While conversations about identity rarely involve formal performance evaluations, they constantly involve feedback on who someone is or what they’ve done—whether it’s a reference to their “privilege,” a charge that they’re “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic,” or a suggestion that something they did was offensive or harmful. If you ever find yourself in these situations, you should right-size feedback in identity conversations by making sure what you’re hearing is what your counterpart is saying.
To take a common example: Imagine a Gen Z’er reminds you of your “white privilege,” “male privilege,” or whatever forms of privilege you have. How do you interpret the word “privilege”? If you’re like many people we work with, you might hear it to suggest your life has been easy or that everything you’ve accomplished can be attributed to your group identity. Yet more often than not, the other person simply means you have advantages along certain dimensions of life (as we all do), and that those advantages have given you some boosts alongside your talents and hard work.
Conversations about privilege aren’t the only place these misunderstandings arise. Another common and consequential mix-up occurs when people are accused of bias. United States Senator John Kennedy once said: “It hurts to be called a racist. I think it’s one of the worst things you can call an American.” In our work, we have found that many young people don’t see it that way: They use the term “racist” to refer to unconscious or systemic forms of bias. This way of talking about bias is still unfamiliar to many people. If that’s true of you, you might hear the statement “I think you’re racist” as the claim: “I think you, unlike most people in this society, are racist.” But it may be the claim: “I think you, like most people in this society, are racist.” Because of this misunderstanding, identity conversations can resemble slow-motion car crashes. One side believes racism is a “we” problem. The other interprets it as a “me” problem.
Read More: How to Work With Generation Z
Our friend Rhonda, a fierce advocate of diversity and inclusion who’s in her early 50s, avoided such a car crash after receiving a letter from junior employees who’d recently entered her creative arts organization. The letter urged her and other senior leaders to make changes to the workplace. It used terms like “white supremacy” and “racial violence” that sounded like accusations of rank bigotry. Rhonda was perplexed by the strength of the language and asked us to interpret the document. We sensed from our experience reading similar communications that the words were open to many interpretations, including that the leaders were unconsciously biased like everyone else.
Sure enough, Rhonda spoke with the employees directly and found the dialogue less antagonistic than she feared. They weren’t accusing her and the other leaders of bigotry. Rather, they were bruised from bad experiences in previous jobs, and wanted assurances Rhonda’s organization would be different. The employees had a productive discussion with Rhonda about which workplace reforms were feasible and which ones weren’t. Rhonda couldn’t and didn’t give the employees everything they wanted. But she told them it was her job to create an inclusive work environment and said she welcomed more conversations to make sure she was delivering on that responsibility.
We think Rhonda handled this situation impressively. Instead of assuming the most extreme and personal interpretation of the employee feedback was correct, she sought them out to clarify what they meant. Sometimes in these conversations, a person’s choice of words has less to do with you personally and more to do with experiences from their past. You can save yourself a lot of grief if, like Rhonda, you mind the gap between the other person’s words and your interpretation of them. Hearing feedback at actual size will give you the space to process and learn from it.
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