January 31, 2012 | Leadership, Workplace Culture + Practices

We like to put ourselves and others in boxes. No, I don’t really mean that literally. By boxes I mean categories. For example, we human beings talk a lot about what it means to be a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer, a Millennial, or a Traditionalist, and how the heck do you work and live with someone from another generation. There’s a lot of theory and opinion out there on the multi-generational workplace and the opportunities and challenges that come along with it.


Generational theory and stereotypes

When I consider what generational theory is really all about, I first think about the stereotypes that are used to describe how people from different generations think, act, relate, and live. Stereotyping has a negative association but the reality is that it is impossible to not be exposed to them. There’s a seemingly endless amount of stereotypes that exist today, not just related to your age, but also related to your gender, where you grew up, what kind of job you have, how you perceive the world and live in it, and on and on. And, at least on the surface, there often seems to be legitimacy to the assumptions these stereotypes are making.


On a basic level, stereotypes give us a way to categorize humanity. Substitute the word “stereotype” for “beliefs” about how we think people should behave based on certain demographic and personality characteristics. We categorize ourselves because we believe it helps us to understand each other – why people do the things they do that is different from how we would do things. We also do this because we think it helps us understand ourselves, and, perhaps more often, it helps us to feel like we’re not alone (“You mean I’m not the only one who thinks/feels/acts/perceives the world in this way?”).


American Generation Age Timeline | Pew Research

Image via Wikipedia


The impact of stereotypes in the workplace

The problem is that when we use this information to make assumptions about others and to cast judgment – however innocent the intention may be – we tend to forget that there’s a person underneath the stereotype. These beliefs encourage us to assume we know a person without ever having to actually connect with them. Problems show up when we tailor our own behavior to fit our assumptions, which may or may not be accurate. When we start making decisions about another based on the box we put them in, which often happens in a work environment (such as passing an employee over for a promotion because we think they’re too young and therefore lack experience), we miss an opportunity to foster a human connection. It’s this human connection that’s so important to be able to support each other and work effectively together.


So while I continue to learn about some of these tools for understanding others, I tend to approach them with a certain amount of skepticism and disbelief. Saying that may make me sound like a Gen Xer, but I’m not. I’m a human being with a soul and a heart, just like everyone else. Just like you.