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Today’s Garbage – Tomorrow’s Treasure?

Garbage or Treasure
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“The problem with the young generation is that they just do not respond to being managed.”

I heard this 10 years ago from a senior executive of a multinational company in Hong Kong, in a management board meeting talking about Millennials.

Other members of the board, all Baby Boomers who had grown up with the organization nodded.  Some cast their eyes downward.  The problem was taken ‘offline’ for further exploration.

Fast forward to 2020.  Social and traditional media alike are abuzz with the criticisms of the ‘fai tsing’ or ‘rubbish youth’, who are accused of being lazy, self-centered, entitled, narcissistic, unmotivated and, most recently, of ‘destroying Hong Kong’.

In turn, the voice of the ‘fai tsing’ has now increased in volume attacking their critics, dubbed ‘fai jung’ and ‘fai lou’, the rubbish middle-aged and rubbish elderly.  They are the ones, according to the young generation, who are ‘rubbish’ (or collectively, the ‘human garbage’) – on the basis they are described as having ‘ruined Hong Kong by not standing up for its rights when they had the chance’, and now ‘not fighting for Hong Kong’; having ‘destroyed the future for the young generation’, being ‘self-centered’ and on the ‘wrong’ side of the sociopolitical divide.

Those older generations too, in their day, were described by their own forbears in terms not dissimilar to ‘fai tsing’, criticized for their values and priorities, which seemed incomprehensible to the older generations.

How have we got here and what can we do?

Despite its ‘new’ characteristics and elements such as the influence of social media, intergenerational management and communication is far from a new issue. 

Every generation has expectations about how other people should behave, which are shaped by their own development experiences.  The same is true of different races, different belief systems and different backgrounds of almost any type; based on their own life experiences every human being forms views of how the world works, what kind of people to trust, whose opinions are valuable or not – and expectations about how people should act or behave.

When those expectations are not met, they spark a reaction – and often an emotion.  To defuse the emotion – particularly if it is a negative one – we seek to rationalize the unexpected behaviour by giving it a label, and one the makes the other party ‘different’ from us.  

As an example, if we are driving and someone suddenly cuts us off when they switch lanes without indicating, we might call them ‘stupid’ (different from us, who are smart and a good driver).

But if, when we pull up to the lights, we see that driver, something else comes into play.  As well as ‘stupid’, they are now a ‘stupid old guy’, ‘stupid kid’, ‘stupid xxx race’, ‘stupid xxx gender’ etc – anything that is different from who we are, which allows us to both rationalize how someone could to something so stupid, and disown the possibility that we could ever be that stupid ourselves (because they are different to us).

The same is true for ‘ideological differences’ – but it gets even more complicated.  Once we have labelled the person for their differences, the possibilities reduce of hearing them or considering their views, values and perspectives.  We get so stuck in the ‘label’ that it blocks everything else.

In 2003 Nigel Nicholson, writing for Harvard Business Review in an article called “How to Motivate Your Problem People” concluded that the most important action to take was to STOP seeing them as ‘problems’.  Labelling them in this way shut off the possibilities for finding the levers that will motivate them and get them to bring the best of themselves to work.  Rather than seeing them as a problem to be solved, Nicholson said, we should see them as a ‘person to be understood’ – and work hard to find points of connection and mutual understanding that can open the doors to greater alignment. Returning to the boardroom where this paper started, the uncomfortable silence after the first comment was broken only when one voice said:

“Perhaps the problem is the way we are managing – maybe it is us who have to change our ways?”

Like them or despise them, youth are not going away.  There is no scenario in which businesses can ignore this generation and populate themselves with only the other, older generations who ‘think more like us’ and perhaps ‘respond (better) to management’.  Even if they could do that – they have lost an incredible resource of creativity, energy, passion and talent. 

Do we have the courage to do this in Hong Kong?  Our future may depend on it.


Text by roundPegz fellow: Graham Barkus

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