In my last entry, I made some generalizations about member of Generation X and Millennials. Generalizing can put people off—unless we have agreement on what generalizing is and why it is useful. Generalizing is not a negative thing while stereotyping is. And it is a very important tool.
Differences can be the source of judgment, misunderstanding and tension. Understanding can break through all of that. Understanding can disperse judgment like light disperses darkness. This is true both with individuals and with groups or categories of people. Think of someone whose approach is very different from your own—say, Sam whose office is down the hall from yours—and he drove you crazy. Then you got to know Sam, where he was coming from and why he approached things as he did. This understanding likely reduced your judgment—and opened choices. You could begin to see ways to work with Sam and even strengths in his approach. Now replace Sam with a group or category of people—for example, Jews, Latinos, Millennials, Baby Boomers, men or women. If you are perplexed by working with people in any such group, understanding is the starting point.
My job (and passion) is to increase understanding of how and why people are different. With this understanding people can learn to appreciate and use those differences. The tool of generalizing is critical to my ability to increase understanding.
Stereotyping is the process of assigning certain characteristics to a person because he or she is a member of a certain group—e.g., “Millennials are entitled,” “Baby Boomers are materialistic” or “Women can’t read maps.” No one likes to be stereotyped. (I am a woman who can read maps.) Here’s how generalizing is different; it is the conscious use of a “bell curve” approach. I’ll illustrate with Millennials (Gen Y).
We acknowledge that the values, work habits, perspectives, behaviors etc. (for shorthand, “traits”) of all American Millennials vary greatly, but that the traits of any one Millennial are likely to fall somewhere within a bell curve that describes the traits of all Millennials. To understand Millennials as a group, we look at those who operate right in the center of the bell curve. They represent the “typical” Millennial and have the traits that it is most common for Millennials to have. (Naming these traits must be based on facts and research, not opinions or stereotypes.) There are lots of Millennials who do not share many of these traits (the tails of the bell curve are long); but the center is where more Millennials operate than any other place within the bell curve. We use the prototypical “center-of the bell-curve” Millennials to generalize about the group.
With an agreement that I am generalizing, I can say something like “Millennials are generally not self-directed,” and my listeners know I am not saying this is true of all Millennials. I am generalizing about the group to enable understanding it. Generalizing allows us to understand how this group is different from other generations and what influences made certain traits so common in the group. Then—without losing appreciation for individuality–we can move from judgment to acceptance, constructive action and even appreciation of members of the group.
My expertise is in masculine/feminine and generational differences. I can base the traits of the prototypes for these groups on research. So I use this tool mostly in those areas. Where can the tool of generalizing be used to increase appreciation of difference in your organization?