Descriptions Are Not Prescriptions


“I’m a millennial. We catch on quickly.”

I’m not a millennial, but when I overheard a coworker say the above one day, I also caught on quickly. I sensed immediately that my colleague was serious about her declaration. Her tone came with no humor, no self-deprecation, no doubt about the virtues of youth.

I rolled my eyes. Not because my colleague isn’t terrific and a quick learner. She is. Nor because her remark tapped into a stereotype about her cohort. Rather, it was because she felt it was relevant to bring up the stereotype in the first place.

Now, before you roll your own eyes anticipating a blog post bashing, praising, or analyzing millennials, hold on. I have no interest in rehashing something you’ve probably read 45 times in Fast Company (or on Fast Company if you’re a millennial).

I’m more concerned with a broader question: When do generational clichés in the workplace make sense? 

I think the answer lies in the following story. Once upon a time, I was tasked with writing an article for an organization’s intranet about how people of different ages prefer to give and receive feedback. I didn’t want to do the story. While traditionalists—you know, the old people wandering your hallways looking for the fax machine—might often believe that no news is good news, or millennials—you know, the kids searching under their desks for trophies—may crave critiques, should any of this guide how a company communicates about feedback to its people?

Hell to the no! Sure, some workers’ preferences may align perfectly with those typical of their generation, but there are too many variations to legitimize stereotypes as conversation blueprints.

Fair enough, I was told, typecasting shouldn’t guide so much as inform thinking around feedback.

Whatcha talkin’ bout, Willis? (Millennials: Click here for the reference.) Let’s put the thesaurus down for a moment.

Categorizing can be useful when drafting policies or programs. (For example, tailoring learning and development initiatives to appeal to your population’s demographics.) But individual experiences around feedback are just that—individual. The way each of us deals with feedback is extremely personal—so much so that “informing” people about generalizations not only serves no good purpose but can be counterproductive to having productive discussions.

Only the laziest (at best) managers and employees will permit their assumptions on age, gender, race, etc., to function as dialogue tools. That includes me. And you. All of us sometimes assume things we shouldn’t about our coworkers. And we all know what happens when you assume—you make an ass out of you and…nah, just you.

That’s why it’s incumbent upon businesses to help their people catch themselves when biases creep in, not publish intranet articles that perpetuate and exploit those biases. In other words, unless you’re sure that doing so will positively impact the workplace, don’t promote descriptions as prescriptions.

So how about this instead: If you want to know how someone likes to give or receive feedback, just ask. Simple, right?

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