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Will we continue to "coddle" iGen?

With “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt set off a firestorm…

Their inspiration was the growing tendency on college campuses to protect students from any uncomfortable experiences and punish offenders––any who compromise the feeling of safety and security demanded by students––even unintentionally. Originally an article for The Atlantic, they expanded their exploration with a book by the same title.

“The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” (The Atlantic, Sep, 2015)

This vindictive protectiveness or “safetyism” as they describe it in their book hit the national stage as the “iGen” entered college. The first wave from this generation is now entering the workforce and entering politics. As they do, current leaders are faced with some serious questions and challenges. The most important and pressing is…

Will you continue to coddle them?

Our tendency is often to accommodate changing demands as new generations enter the workforce and as they assume greater leadership responsibility. This can lead to remarkable innovations and progress––but its also very important to recognize where we might have gone wrong in developing a younger generation and to correct, rather than exacerbate these mistakes. And with iGen, we’ve made plenty of mistakes!

  • iGen is emerging as the most depressed generation in history.

  • Suicide rates are climbing at an alarming rate, especially among girls and young women.

  • They are having more difficulty bonding in serious relationships.

  • They are particularly vulnerable to public perception.

I won’t go into all the causes, Haidt and Lukianoff do a wonderful job of that. Let’s focus on what this means to you as a leader and talk about how you will respond as the iGen works its way into your organization.

First, you’ve no doubt seen many of the stories about the turmoil on college campuses in recent years as iGen and the faculty and administrators that coddled them banned speech, punished some of their best instructors––often for perceived or even manufactured offenses and pushed to replace intellectual diversity and challenging thought with safe spaces and ideological solidarity. You might get away with allowing students to opt out of difficult situations in college, but once they face the challenges of the real world and today’s increasing competitive business environment, coloring books and teddy bears cripple rather than comfort.

The metaphor of our brain as a muscle is extremely helpful. We grow stronger in thought by facing intellectual challenges, not by shielding ourselves from offense or discomfort. We need to cultivate strong minds if we have any hope of developing the courageous young leaders we need to face today’s challenges––and tomorrow’s.

Now this doesn’t mean we need to revert to an arcane command and control mentality.

And more than ever, it’s important to lead by example. “Do as I say” did not fly with the Millennials and it will never work with iGen.

What it does mean is that rather than coddling, which is essentially what hampered the development of this generation, we have to pick up the pieces and move forward. In 30 plus years of working with young people in martial arts, I know from experience what it takes to cultivate strong, confident, creative––courageous and compassionate young adults…

  • Rather than over-protect, we need to provide meaningful, constructive challenges. We need to expose iGen to risk and encourage them to embrace uncertainty as an opportunity––not a threat.

  • Instead of “safe spaces” as shields from any harm or offense, we need to create a safe and encouraging environment where ideas are respectfully considered and best effort is recognized and appreciated. (This applies to everyone––not just iGen!)

  • Rather than caving in to every demand and whim, we must have the courage to express the alternate viewpoint in conflicts, give equal consideration to all valid sides of an argument and make sure each side has the opportunity to voice their position.

  • We must restore and protect due process when it comes to accusations and not simply cut good people because it’s the easy way out.

  • We must be willing to defend good people against unfounded attacks––even when it's not easy, comfortable or even profitable.

  • We’ve got to end this climate of immediate condemnation without substance and assumption of intention without understanding.

  • We must restore civility to discourse where both sides speak, and both sides truly listen.

And we must remember not to judge individuals by the group. As with any generation––yours and mine included––trends and generalizations do not define any particular individual. There are many members of iGen who do not fit the stereotypes. There are many who, if profiled as individuals, would seem to fit better in another time––in another cohort group. Genuinely human-centric leaders do their best to avoid the trap of prejudging any one person by any associative characteristic, including the accidental year of their birth.

Am I asking too much?

Think of the consequences if we continue to do what college leadership has been doing for the past several years. Their best intentions and efforts were seldom if ever appreciated. They were often met with even more extreme demands and in several cases, with their own heads in the guillotine.

Despite these prognostications of doom, there is a tremendous amount of hope. iGen is also a potentially powerful force in shaping a better future in society and business.

  • They are more tolerant of people of diverse races, cultures and sexual identities. This will serve them well in an increasing diverse workplace.

  • They are skeptical of authority as they have grown up in a environment rife with corrupt, greedy and mendacious leaders. This skepticism could help us cultivate more human-centric, productive leaders in the future.

  • They are adept at connecting through technology. Even though we have a lot to learn in this area, we are an ever more connected world and we need leaders who can navigate this new communication landscape.

Can we welcome the young people of iGen as productive, contributing members of our organizations?

I believe we can––if we practice human-centric leadership.

  • If we respect the individual and do our best to understand.

  • If we are tough––yet compassionate.

  • If we lead by example.

  • If we inspire, empower and guide.

And this type of leadership can bridge any generational divide.


An extra thought…

As I edited this post, I purposely emphasized one sentence. It is the question: “Will you continue to coddle them?”

This is an experiment. I’m absolutely certain that this will “trigger” some oppositional responses. I’m also certain that anyone offended by that question, or the preceding text, will not read past that question.

If you did take offense, and if you have read this far––I welcome your dissenting viewpoints and I am glad to debate respectfully. Please add your thoughts to the comments and I will do my best to respond.

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