Sunday, December 20, 2009

Random Acts of Kindness

I was leading a session for a government client earlier this week and they asked me to propose a special activity with a holiday theme to liven up their staff retreat. I suggested that they do a Secret Santa activity for the week leading up to our session.

You pick a name out of a hat and for a period of a week you are invited do an act of kindness for your colleague every day. The kindnesses can be anything from leaving a hot cup of coffee on their desk without being seen, to clearing off the snow from their car before they leave at night, to writing a poem in their honor or leaving chocolates or other treats where they can find them. The Secret Santa observes his or her colleague throughout the week to learn a bit more about who they are, and especially, find something that they appreciate about them. At the end of the week, the Secret Santas are unveiled during a special staff meeting. At the meeting, the Secret Santas share with the rest of the group what they have observed from their colleague and what they like about them.

My client loved the idea. It was something we could do without much preparation and with no outlay of cash (budgets are very tight these days!) plus, it would add a bit of holiday cheer to the workplace.

A few days before the Secret Santa activity was to begin, my client received a few long-winded emails and even some calls from staff complaining that they did not have time to deal with such frivolous Christmas activities on work time: five acts of kindness in a week was simply too much to handle in these busy times (although it probably took as much time as would be necessary to do 3 or 4 acts of kindnesses to write the long formal memos to complain about the lack of time but that is besides the point...or is it?)

My client compromised. In an email she said: "We understand that some of you are concerned about the time required to the Secret Santa activity every day for a week so therefore, we are asking that you limit your acts of kindness to only twice during the week preceding our staff retreat."

That seemed to satisfy the naysayers. They had made their point. Their discontent was heard and management had acted on it. So everyone limited their kindnesses to two times during the week. (Can you sense the cynicism and incredulity behind my diplomatic words?)

What is wrong with this picture? A lot! First, that we have to formalize an invitation for people to be kind to each other in the workplace is very sad indeed. Busy people do not have time to be cordial and kind to each other apparently.

Second, since when do we have to schedule time to have fun and be playful at work? Does this mean that real work only gets done in a formal, perfunctory, robot-like environment? Does this mean that we cannot afford to be living and breathing human beings at work and let our hearts and soul sing while we do our work?

Third, who are those scrooges who dared to complain that they were too busy with work to do an act of kindness for their colleague??? How long does it take so say thank you or open the door for someone or leave a candy on someone's desk? Perhaps we are so out of practice with being kind that these individuals felt like they had to do a lot of planning to do an impromptu act of kindness? I really don't get it.

In the end, people were thrilled with the activity (so much so that they have proposed doing a Secret Easter Bunny activity next Spring!) At the close the staff retreat, I asked everyone to come up in turn to the front of the room to describe what their Secret Santa had done. All of them expressed real gratitude for the kindnesses they received. They were touched by their colleague's thoughtfulness and caring. Once they were done, the Secret Santa revealed themselves and came to the front to join their colleague. All of them, without exception, hugged each other - can you believe that? Marks of affection in a workplace! Some would say that it is odd. I say it is heart-warming. It was now the Secret Santa's turn to say what they appreciated from their colleague. Here are some examples:

  • "Whenever I meet Mary in the hallways she always greets me with a happy hello and a smile."
  • "I like that John always delivers what he promises when he promised it. His work is very professional and thorough."
  • "You can go see Ghislaine if you need a little pick me up. She always finds something kind and positive to say. I always feel better after I talk to her."
  • "Richard is a big thinker. He is like a walking encyclopaedia. I love talking to him about new ideas."
Simple things huh? Little things are big things. Some would say that is all there is.

A lot of the Christmas movies seem to have a similar message. What makes Christmas magical is not the big ticket items under the tree or the gourmet food for Christmas dinner or the "bling" and designer clothes that you are wearing at the office Christmas party. What makes Christmas magical is that it awakens in us our humanity and our purpose "to do unto others what we would like them to do unto us."

At Christmas time, we are reminded about the abundance of things that we have and that we take for granted. At Christmas time, we are reminded that others are in need and we become more generous. We take the time to donate to Toy Mountain, the Food Bank, and World Vision or Care Canada. We make the time to volunteer at the soup kitchen or at the children's school fund raising activities. More so than any other time of the year, at Christmas time we feel that we can make a positive difference and we act on it.

The magic of Christmas is that love is free-flowing. And with love, anything can happen.

May you give and receive much love during this Christmas season...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Five generations of people side by side

I have always been fascinated by sociology, the study of human societies. Diane Pacom, a sociology professor at the University of Ottawa gave a wonderful presentation on the generational gap between today's youth and the older generations a few weeks ago.

Did you know that there are presently five distinct generations living side by side in Canada?

There are two million folks in Canada who are from the 1920's generation (1920-1929) who are now in their eighties. The "Roaring Twenties" or the "Jazz Age" was a period of prosperity after the first World War and it was also a period of changing morals. This period of our history is also called the "Lost Generation". Many good, young men went to war and died, or returned home either physically or mentally wounded (for most, both), and their faith in the moral guideposts that had earlier given them hope, were no longer valid...they were "Lost." "Lost" also describes the general feeling of discontinuity associated with a break with traditions. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technology. New technologies, especially automobiles, moving pictures and proliferated 'modernity' to a large part of the population. There was no television yet and even less computers or Internet...

There are 2.5 million Canadians who were born in the period of the Great Depression, the 1930-1939 generation. "What was once a land of opportunities became a land of desperation" to quote Bettye Sutton. Money was scarce. People were focused on survival instead of advancement. Authors have compared the Great Depression to the economic crisis we have experienced in the last year. Diane Pacom says that the impact of the depression on the 1930's youth was quite different. Today's youth define themselves by brands. You are ridiculed if you have an ordinary MP3 as opposed to an IPod. You are not cool if you wear department store brand running shoes rather than the latest Nikes. You are a "loser" if you wear your sister's hand me downs rather than the Lululemon sweatshirt or the Aeropostale t-shirts. So in a sense, the loss of income in this period of economic turn-down not only affected individual's capacity to attend to basic needs but it also undermined youth's sense of identity and self-worth. The 1930's youth fared better on that front.

The generation of the Second World War (1940-46) are also called the "Silent Generation". The "Pre-Boomers" as they are sometimes called, entered adulthood in the 1950s and benefited from ample job opportunities, rapid promotion and easy prosperity.

The Baby Boomers, people born between 1947 and 1964, are 9 million in Canada today. The Baby Boomers are the first generation of "youth" in humanity. Before them, a person went from being a child to a young adult in the span of a couple of years. Today you are considered "young" if you are between 14 years of age to 34 years of age. The boomers created our culture's fixation with youth. Today, there is a young way of dressing, a young way of talking and writing (e.g. rap, MSN and texting), a young way to playing (e.g Ipods, Playstations, Youtube, etc...) thanks to the marketing genius of Baby Boomers.

The boomers have desconstructed our world. The boomers declared that marriage, church, family, politics,... were OUT. But they have not replaced these institutions with any other traditions.

The Generation X is the last cohort of the Baby Boomers, born between 1961 and 1980. A National Post article published on February 27, 2007 declares that Gen X will change the work culture. The author, Ray Williams, describes the Gen X, as people who grew up with pet rocks, platform shoes and watched The Simpsons. "They question authority, seek bigger meaning in life and work, are technologically savvy, live in the present, are skeptical, see career as a key to happiness, are open to multi-careers, consider challenge and variety as being more important than job security and constantly aim to achieve work-life balance." Diane Pacom points out that today's politics is attracting Generation X people like Obama, Stephen Harper and Jean Charest. They are pushing for a return to strong values and traditions.

After the Generation X, the Generation Y is considered to be the echo to the Baby Boomers. These youth between 14 to 29 years of age number almost 7 million in Canada. They are are the "I" generation as opposed to the "me" generation. Diane Pacom explains that a "me" usually impliesa "you" but for the Generation Y people there is no "you", so therefore they are just focused on the "I".

According to Mme Pacom, they are the "enfants rois" (the royal children) - to whom everything is owed and everything is given (often out of guilt from parents who don't know how to be worthy of the title of "good parent"). This generation of children has been the most wanted. Every milestone was marked with celebrations and praise. They may carry a sense of entitlement about them and have an expectation of frequent positive feedback.

Teachers have coined a term to describe those children's parents: the helicopter parents. Like helicopters, parents of Generation Y kids hover closely overhead, rarely out of reach, whether their children need them or not. The Generation Y children are sheltered. They grew up in a time of increasing safety measures (car seats, baby on board signs, school lockdowns). They were rarely left unsupervised. They were sheltered from having to take care of their own conflicts as parents advocated on their behalf, and “spared” them from unpleasant experiences

The Generation Y children are "trophy kids” and they feel pressure to excel. It is interesting to note that the Generation Y children have been identified in the school system as "gifted" in record numbers. In a typical week, those children juggle school, homework, band practice, soccer team / hockey team practice and singing lessons. For every "royal child" explains Diane Pacom, there are three excluded children. The children that have been diagnosed (and medicated) in record numbers in the last 15 to 20 years as having ADHD, anxiety, Asperger Syndrome or learning difficulties. Those kids who just don't belong in a world where you need to be "super" at something just to be noticed. Ordinary just doesn't cut it anymore.

The Millennial Generation are children born since 1996. These children were born in a high tech, high speed society. The Millennial children are more intuitive and more creative than older generations were at that age. They take to computers like a fish takes to water and have a natural understanding of technology in general that can border on the uncanny. They seem to have an understanding of the spiritual beyond their years and a matter-of-fact attitude toward the paranormal are often attributed to these youngsters. Millennials are on track to become the best-educated and best-behaved adults in the nation’s history. More comfortable with their parents’ values than any other generation in living memory, Millennials support convention – the idea that social rules can help. Diane Pacom says that these children are the most promising generation.

I believe that every generation has something precious to contribute to the next generation and important lessons to learn from the previous generation. As a parent of a Generation Y child and a Millennial child, I have to ask myself how can I give my daughters the space and the confidence to become who they are meant to be? How can I instil in my daughters a respect for older generations? How can I encourage them to be curious and appreciative for the wisdom older people have acquired in their lifetime?

I think that like many things in life you start small. A couple of weeks ago I asked my father who will turn 80 in March, if he would take me and my 13 year old daughter to his father's land in Quebec to cut down a small Christmas tree. On the way there, three generations of people, my daughter (the Milliennial child), myself (the Gen X'er) and my father (the Great Depression generation) were having a lively conversation about Christmas traditions and memories.

"What do you want for Christmas?" my father asks my daughter. "I want a tablet" she says. "You want a chocolate bar? (tablette de chocolat)" my father replies with surprise in his voice. "No, I want a computerized tablet on which I can draw my Manga characters and save them directly onto the hard drive so that I can color them in electronically and use them in video clips." she explains. "Ahhh. I understand. I didn't know that kind of thing existed" my father says with a bit of wonder in his voice. You see, even though my dad is from the Great Depression era, he fell in love with computers in his fifties and is very knowledgeable about them. Computers are one of his greatest pastimes. He makes the most amazing three dimensional birthday cards using graphics that he designs on the computer. He photo shops our pictures and attaches our heads onto characters that depict us in situations that illustrate a momentous event in our life. His creative interpretations of our lives always make us smile and tug at our hearts. In some ways, my father has more in common with my daughter when it comes to computers than I do. Instead of being a communication obstacle between generations, the computer bridges the communication gap in my family. Isn't that wonderful?

What are some of the bridges that you can help build between the generations in your family or in your workplace?

Check out this video clip on Youtube about growing old. Very touching.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

In pursuit of eternal youth

In 1960's-1970's there was a radical change in social order. The adults lost their power to make the rules, young people took over that privilege. So says Diane Pacom, a well-known sociology professor at the University of Ottawa and a frequent guest on Radio Canada, and the conference circuits. On Friday morning I attended her presentation to a group of University of Ottawa retirees entitlted "Quand le boom fait face à son écho" (When the boom faces its echo).

Mme Pacom started by defining what it means to be considered "young". Being young means that you are under tutelage, someone else decides for you. Being young also means that you are not responsible or accountable for your actions.

Before the 1960's there was no "youth" per say from a societal point of view. You were either a child or an adult. Puberty marked the beginning of adulthood. You learned your trade on the farm or in the print shop and once you mastered it, you went to work. My dad who was a child of the Depression years worked to support his family at the age of 11. His mother, Fleurette, married my grandfather at the age of 17 and went on to raise eight kids. It is unthinkable that kids that age would have those kinds of responsibilities in this day and age isn't it?

But in the 1960's all that changed. Society started on its pursuit for eternal youthfulness. As Diane Pacom said, in the 1950's young girls aspired to be just like their mothers - playing at being a mom and learning to cook and clean just like her so they could be somebody's wife some day. Nowadays, mothers aspire to be like their daughters, chatting with them about their dating experiences (since over half of them are divorced), dressing in tight jeans and revealing tops, and getting Botox injections to erase the passage of time on their face.

When Mme Pacom started studying the phenomenon of youth in the 1980's, youth was defined as a period of 10 years between 14 years to 24 years. Today, sociologists consider that youth is a period spanning 30 years (!) between 14 years and 34 years.

Traditionally there were five markers that defined the passage from youth to adulthood:

1. End of Studies:
The end of studies marked a time when you had acquired the knowledge and know-how you needed to go forth in the world and succeed.

In the early 1950's, you finished your secondary at age 17 or 18 and started to work right away. Rare were those who went on to university. Girls aspired to a job as a secretary, a hairdresser or maybe a teacher. When they got married, they left their "careers" to take care of the children. Men had a much wider world of possibilities when it came to careers.

Today, most kids go to college or university after their secondary school. Many move on to doing Masters and Phd's. The "end" of studies comes much later in life.

Thanks to marketing companies and the consumer society it created, we are in a perpetual state of not "knowing".

We do not know how to eat: Depending on the diet of the day we are told to eliminate fats, eliminate carbohydrates, increase the proteins, add olive oil and flax seeds. Toss the vitamins E you bought a few years ago, now you need to beef up your consumption of vitamin D. Do you think our grandmothers worried about these kind of things?

We do not know how to breathe: We need to take yoga classes to reacquaint ourselves with our breath.

We do not know how to walk: The Running Room is making a fortune with their "Learn to Walk" clubs

We do not know how to live. We need life coaches to hold us by the hand to help us figure out our lives.

Today, we are never finished learning. We feel incompetent and unsure. We are told that we need expert advice on everything and anything.

2. When you get married.

The Baby Boomers rejected the tradition of marriage. Sexual experimentation starts younger and younger (I read a stat recently that said that in Quebec for example, the average age of the first sexual encounter is 14 years old). Living with rather than being married to seems to be the preferred trend. And for those of us who do get married, half the marriages end in the divorce.

3. When you choose a profession.

In my dad's era, you chose a career and it was for life. My dad was a biologist for 35 years working for the same organization that whole time. (In his early fifties, he went back to school to get a Masters in Human Sciences but that is another story)

In my case, (I'm a 1960's child) I rarely stayed in a job more than a few years. Four years is the longest I stayed in one job in the same organization. On average, I change jobs every couple of years.

According to Mme Pacom, today's youth see life as non-linear and fragmented. They live for the present moment, moving from one thing to another following what is their current passion. There is no such thing as choosing a career. They choose to explore an interest and follow it until something else comes along.

4. When we leave our parent's home.

We call today's parents, the "boomerang" parents. They send out their kids into the big wide world but they come back, come back, and come back again. There are many 35 year olds living in their parents basements these days, sometimes with their whole family in tow!

5. When we start a family.

The current trend is that women have babies later in life, once their studies are finished and they are established in their careers. On average women have babies in their late twenties and early thirties and there are more and more women having their first baby in their forties.

Diane Pacom argues that all these markers of the passage of youth to adulthood have disappeared in our society. Adults have lost their legitimacy and their authority. Youth, or youthfulness rules today.

"What is the solution? What can we do?" asked a teary-eyed participant at the end of Pacom's presentation. "I think we need too bring back humanity in our superficial consumer society. We need to find our self-respect again. Once, as adults, we become self-assured, we need to find it within ourselves to also respect our youth." Youth want to relate to us as equals. They act as if they could not care less about what we think but truly, they need our guidance. We just need to find the door that will let us in.

Diane Pacom received the 3M Teaching Fellowship award as an outstanding educator in 2004. Together with nine other recipients, she spent three days reflecting on what were the key ingredients to being an outstanding educator. It came down to just one thing: "Love them. Love them in the holistic sense of the word. When you are spending time with youth, you need to be totally there with them, your body, your mind and your spirit. Don't pretend that you are spending quality with your youth by going through the motions and still being preoccupied in your head with your kitchen list of things to do. Just BE there."

What do you think about all this? How does this apply to the workplace as well?