Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The seasons they go round and round – age, experience and idea leadership

[Blind people examining an elephant*]

I recently became the senior member of the English staff in my college. I remember joining the staff a few years ago  as the youngest member, filled, possibly overfilled, with ideas and enthusiasm. The 30 or so years between those two points in time have passed without much noise. However, as my mother would say, with age comes philosophy. Comparing my work situation then and now, I see how they are both are outlier positions but yet bring positive values that should not be automatically dismissed but instead seriously considered.

Each society and profession has its peak years. For example, in some sports, the high point of a career is between the ages of 22-30 while some professions view the peak of competence at around 50 or even older. Clearly, colleagues below and above the peak years do not have the same status. Their perception of matters is often viewed as non-mainstream, whether as being “new-fangled” or “old school” although the correlation is far from 100%. As such, colleagues tend to place less value on their views, which can create some pain, if not anger because such employees are not taken completely seriously, whether justifiably or not. For example, many recent graduates are eager to apply new technology or approaches to a given problem but the existing staff is very skeptical of these novelties. Likewise, the old-timers in the group have no patience for many changes as they don’t see what is wrong with the old system or why they have to deal with a certain issue. Such employees, whatever respect they receive, are still outliers in terms of their point of view.

Yet, in practice, for an organization to grow and cope with a dynamic world, it needs both tendencies, i.e., to push forward and retain proven methods. Mainstream colleagues have a natural tendency to maintain the status quo with small changes to deal with relevant changes. By contrast, new blood sees the whole picture without any assumptions and can identify a fundamental issue that is being missed. On the other hand, older colleagues, generally but not always less enthusiastic about technology and change, often restrain overambitious plans, making them more effective. Thus, a broad mix of employees in terms of tenure is a recipe for success.

Unfortunately, depending on the organizational culture, the leading voices often completely reject both points of view. It is far more convenient and comfortable to do as what was done before without controversy or join the bandwagon of change without criticism. This choice reduces external disagreement and dissonance. Even if it is unreasonable to completely adopt a certain point of view, it is quite probable that it contains elements of truth that should be taken into account. These positive values not only enrich the program and work team but also motivate all members to actively participate even if their view is minority.

Based on my work experience as a teacher in a large team, I can say that an effective leader respectfully and seriously considers all opinions and not only listens to them but also applies any relevant elements in the final decision. Not only does such balance improve any plan or decision, it motivates all members, young and old, to actively participate in all decisions.

The seasons do progress. All of us started our careers as newbies where-ever we are in our careers now. As such, mutual respect and serious consideration of outlying views is an effective strategy for creating a dynamic team. Everybody identifies a different aspect of an elephant. It is the combination of perspectives that creates a clearer impression of the truth.

* Picture captions help the blind fully access the Internet.

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