people in groups

Look at the Individual

My day job sent around an interesting TED Talk on our current multi-generational workforce. This is the first time in history five generations – Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Generation Z – are working together. What do you think the talk centered around? How the older generations work harder? How the middle child generation, Gen X, allows their cynicism to sabotage the generations on either side? How Millennials need to be coddled and treated with kid gloves?  Take a moment to think about these groups and what it looks like to have an office packed with all these different types of workers.

Then listen to Leah Georges’ TED Talk. She does not categorize the groups. She does not separate and label them. Instead, she shows how our assumptions, stereotypes, and biases make more problems than they solve. Ms. Georges asks us to release our desire to lump people together in groups and make assumptions about them by our own classifications. She instead, encourages us to get to know each other as individuals. When we take off the label, we can see the reality of what that person is going through, where they need support, and where they can excel.

people in groups
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

This is a much-needed lesson outside of the workplace as well. Although the TED talk focuses on age, Ms. Georges’ concepts can easily be applied to bias of gender, ethnicity, politics, religion, and sexual orientation/identification. Our minds naturally label and categorize. For cognitive efficiency, we meet someone, choose a group to define them, and lump that person in the same box. It is efficient but also misguided. Our desire to put people into neat little boxes is off-base for many reasons.

Categorization is Not a Fact

Having a label does not make it a fact. It just helps us communicate. We all agree a plant with bark, roots, branches and leaves is called a tree. We do this to improve and simplify our communication. When I need to tell the fireman my cat is stuck in a tree I don’t have to have to say, “If you look between those green petals you can see my cat sitting on the long brown wooden arm coming out of that vertical wooden pole.” Similarly, we can discuss an employee by their generation to make it easier to communicate, but we can not assume that every person in that generation will act the way we have personally defined that generation.

Categorization is Built on Assumptions

We decide what we categorize by – age, skin tone, gender – and then create our own assumptions about those groups. All of this is personal and based on our own perception, bias, and experience. It is not absolute. It is not unmoving. As we gain more data and experience, our categorizations may change, our perceptions may change. Everything is based on our assumptions at that time. A better choice is to encourage thinking to be more flexible, inclusive, and expansive.

Categorization Only Looks at a Slice

People are not two-dimensional. We are not only our role of mother, daughter, sister, writer, or consultant. We are not only ourselves on our best behavior. We also have rough days or days we act in less-than-ideal ways. Categorization is like a scientific experiment. Experiments are made in controlled environments. They are in heat or cold, inside or outside. What is found to be true in the experiment is only true in those specific conditions. Same goes for us. How we appear in our work environment may be very different than we appear out with friends. To be categorized by one role or another only gives a slice of who we are.

As you go through your day, see if you can become aware of how you classify people, choose to let go of your labels, and seek to understand each person as an individual. Not only will this help us to come together, but it also makes for much more fascinating and multifaceted interactions.

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