Ageism – The Last Acceptable form of Discrimination

Because I’ve been focusing on coaching for Millennial managers, I have been wading into the seamy side of intergenerational issues.

There was an iconic saying of the 60’s, “never trust anyone over 30”. Today, the very generation that coined that phrase is long past the age they once distrusted. They are in the position of managing, evaluating, promoting, hiring and firing those under 30, sometimes called the Millennial generation. So, should Millennials trust anyone over 30?

Though there are significant cultural differences between generations in the workforce today, a topic many writers have tackled already, the question is really not about age. Imagine for a minute that you were at work and someone said, “he speaks a different language, so his opinions aren’t important to listen to.” Or, “Her skin is a different colour than ours, so she’s not going to the training session.” Perhaps this does happen in your workplace – but if it does, I bet there is an HR policy or at the very least a workplace law that gives you recourse to fight it.

But what about when you hear someone say, “he’s only 26 years old. He’s not ready for that position.” “He hasn’t had enough experience yet, he’s so young.” Or more likely, “young people today don’t have what it takes to…” or “that generation is etc.” It goes the other way, too: “he’s too old to understand.” “she’ll never go for this new technology – she’s too stuck in the old ways of doing things.” We are even reinforcing Ageism through media – newspapers doing op-ed pieces on the failures of the Millennial Generation, and Blogs railing about the Boomer Generation.

I call this Ageism, the last acceptable form of discrimination in our culture. It flows through our thoughts like water, acceptable, reasonable, justified. We pass it on, ironically, from generation to generation like learning how to tie your shoes.

So, here’s an experiment to try to see how deeply Ageism goes in you:

Imagine that all other forms of discrimination we now abhor once felt just as acceptable and reasonable to the people who held them. Armed with this disturbing perspective, the next time you are working with someone of a different age, either older or younger, ask yourself what assumptions you hold about this person – listen to the statements that go through your head about them and that will tell you what your assumptions are. Listen especially closely for age-related or generation-related assumptions.

Then play the game of assuming the complete opposite.

Now, behave as if that opposite perspective is just as true as the assumptions you started out with true just to see what happens.

If you assume the person is too young to understand how to manage a team, or too old to have ideas about personal branding on the internet, assume the opposite and see what happens.

More importantly, start from an assumption that any person, regardless of his or her age, is smart and capable. Once you’re in that perspective everything else will probably be related to lack of confidence, technical knowledge or opportunity. Those can all be fixed if your intent is right. And more importantly, you now have access to the ideas and energy and help of a significantly higher number of smart, capable people than you allowed yourself to have before.

Is this an easy or difficult experiment for you? Can you give up Ageism? It’s important that you try, because changing all our minds starts with you.


10 Strategies Science Tells Us Make Us Happy

I’ve been reading some of the books in the canon of Positive Psychology lately to find out what science has to say about what we can do to get happy:

 The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky

 What You Can Change . . . and What You Can’t*: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement  by Martin Seligman

and Finding Flow  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
The main themes point to the gap between what we as a society, and as businesspeople, have generally valued in the past 20 years, and what actually makes humans happy. The things that make us happy over time do not include more money, smaller waistlines or bigger houses. The values we have put on competition, climbing the corporate ladder and conspicuous consumption in business are, at least from a happiness perspective, unsupportable.  While those things may give us a temporary boost, we will always return to our set point again, to the same level of happiness we had before. And asking people to multitask, to pursue goals either far above or below their skillset, and to be “individual achievers” will limit their opportunities to get great results.  And that will affect the bottom line.  

So how can we be happier and get great results, too?

Scientists have found that there are specific activities that can reliably increase our happiness and sense of wellbeing including:

  • Avoiding comparisons to others
  • Taking initiative at work
  • Putting money low on the list
  • Smiling even when we don’t feel like it

Additionally, in a business context, the following are important:

  • Sharing tasks with others and asking for help
  • The chance to match skills to challenges
  • Having time to immerse oneself in an activity without distraction

I found The How of Happiness to be particularly useful, since it includes many activites for each of 10 strategies, and recognizes that each person will benefit from a different set of activities.
For a great 11X17 poster of the 10 Happiness strategies to hang on the office wall, go to Yes Magazine

Perspectives and Emotions

Changing perspectives is a great way to open doors to new understanding.  After all, our perspective is what creates our reality.

“Pretend” was the biggest perspective-changer in my life.  A great coach and friend, Michele McCarthy, told me, “Pretend that everything that happens to you happens because you want it to happen and you always get what you want.”  Good and bad.  Conscious and unconscious.  Now, if I always get what I want, and I don’t like what I get, I know I have to change what I want.  

Pretend can also get me past the “It’ll never work” stage.  If I can pretend that it will work, I can quiet the critic and begin to take action.  If I have a bias toward action, and am willing to contain my impatience for the thing to be finished, before I know it, it’s done!

Another perspective that has helped me is that “Emotions are transitory and each has a purpose.”  Mad means there’s a problem (take action to fix it); Sad means something is lost (comfort yourself until it passes); Glad means things are going well (take action to use the energy you have now); Afraid means something is unknown (take action to get information, or comfort yourself until you can get information).  

In a business environment we are often told to “leave your emotions at the door”.  But we have all seen the result of that obligatory suppression – hidden agendas, resentments, turf wars, high turnover, and poor performance.  By making emotions explicit and understanding how they work, and what to do with them, we can use what they give us to get results and make better and healthier connections with people and build more trust in our lives.  This is especially true between bosses and employees.  By naming and explaining what emotions are and how to use them, they lose their mystical and unruly aura.  If we understand that emotions are inevitable outcomes of people interacting with their surroundings, and we can communicate with awareness and responsibility to people who matter to us, we can use the energy they create to get what we want.  An example is using anger to change a situation that is unsustainable, or using sadness to communicate a lack of trust or disappointment.  If no action can be taken, we can at least realize that the emotion will pass, and give ourselves comfort, or use the energy constructively.

The Adaptive Coaching model – Step 1: Notice

The first step in my coaching model is Notice.

Noticing things gives us subjects to connect to others about, and respond to, thus ultimately learning from.  We tend to notice things that disturb us, just as the rest of the living world does.  Disturb doesn’t necessarily mean something negative, but has the connotation of a thrown pebble disturbing the still surface of a pond.

My husband tends to notice things like people walking close to him or me, or moving vehicles.  Even in the middle of a conversation he will look, turn his head, stop talking, and wait until he is satisfied he has the information he requires to continue.  Some people would call it “distraction”, but that has a negative connotation.  He admits it is probably an adaptation from being a father of 4 small children, the sole income earner in his former family, and from over 20 years of commuting by car into a large city every day.

The capacity to be disturbed is an adaptive trait.  In the living world, organisms that are skillful at noticing things have a head start on those who aren’t.  Now, whether or not they are later able to effectively respond to what disturbs them is another story.  We’ll talk about that in my post on the Adaptive Coaching Model step called “Respond”.

So, when we talk about noticing, what are we talking about with people in a business setting?

Let’s say you are in a meeting with your boss and your peers.  You’re talking about a new project for a team you’re on.  You will notice lots of things: the boss looks tired, the head of another department keeps having side conversations with the head of HR, your rival for the next promotion is sitting right next to the boss and seems to be smiling, the room is stuffy, the coffee tastes worse than usual, there’s a high-pitched whine from the air vent.  The list is endless.

All of those things are external to yourself – the usual suspects.  But do you notice anything about yourself?

Is there tension in your body? Where is it? When do you feel it most?

Are you moved to speak or stay silent? Are there people you choose to respond to and others you choose to ignore?

When you speak, how is your voice? Loud? Soft? Hoarse? High-pitched?

Are you mad about anything? Sad? Afraid? Glad?

This is a very short list of the kinds of things that are important for any business person to add to their repertoire of things to notice in a meeting.  Once you notice them, you have more information about the things that are in your control, the things that matter in business.  Those things may be as obvious to others, including your boss, as the stuffy room is to you.  

Of course, the hard part is staying present in the moment to integrate all the input you are getting from the environment, the people, and your own body and thoughts.  It’s vitally important to keep noticing even when your mind starts to process the information.  You may start to imagine that your rival for that promotion is the boss’s favourite.  You remember how often you’ve seen the two of them together lately.  Without giving you any value, those thoughts are taking your attention away from the present, and you are missing what is actually going on.  Over time, if that is what you accept in yourself, you may make serious mistakes in your interactions with others, mistakes which can create stress, fear, regret and other unhelpful feelings.

But if you can think and feel at the same time, if you can be aware of what you notice and use that information to get the best results for you and your boss, your team, your family or your world, you will be able to take the next steps with grace and professionalism.  That’s noticing, the challenge of now, and the first step to becoming skillfully adaptive in any business environment.

For more information about The Adaptive Coach, see – 20 years of adapting in business.