Gum for breakfast: figuring out the whys

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“Can I fix you anything for breakfast?” I called to my grandson, who was in the den.

“No sir, I’m good.”

About then something on the kitchen counter caught my eye. There were gum wrappers. They hadn’t been there the night before. I looked back in the den. My grandson’s jaws were moving just like he was chewing gum.

“Are you having gum for breakfast?”

“Yes, sir.”

My mind ran off in a couple of directions at once. On the one hand, I knew this would not be the last time that my grandson did something I had never thought of doing. Frankly, I had never considered the pros and cons of having gum for breakfast. On the other hand, I thought about how in today’s world we’re leading people who may want to have gum for breakfast when we’ve never thought of it or when we’ve been brought up to think it’s an awful choice.

A Boss’s Conundrum

If you’re responsible for the performance of a group in today’s world, that group probably includes people who are different from you. Some of them, some of the time, will do the equivalent of having gum for breakfast. They’ll do something you’ve never considered and don’t quite understand.

Whether you “get it” or not, it’s still your job to accomplish the mission and help the team members succeed. One current fad is to think about the issue through a generational lens. Could it be that my grandson had gum for breakfast because he was a member of Generation Z, or whatever we’re going to call the generation that comes after Millennials?

Making Common Sense of Generations

It sometimes seems like half the articles I read about leadership have to do, in some way or other, with understanding or adapting to Millennials. That term, “Millennial,” comes from the 1981 book Generations, by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

Reading that book will give you an idea of what the progression of generations has been in the United States back to 1584. The authors, helpfully, divide generations into four different types and point out how their raising helped determine what they became.

This is helpful if you’re looking for a broad view of history. It’s not so helpful if you’re trying to figure out why someone had gum for breakfast. It may help you understand why a percentage of the population is having gum for breakfast, but it won’t help you much with the people who are right in front of you. The truth is, there is more variation within a generation than there is between generations. So, let’s ditch generation theory as a way to figure out what’s going on.

Figuring Out Why People Do Stuff

The first thing to realize is that you never fully understand why anybody does anything. There’s no course and no magic incantation that will help you. There’s only one way known to humankind that will help you zero in on why someone might have chosen gum for breakfast.

You have to get to know that person. If you’re a boss, that means showing up a lot. It means having conversations, some of which are about business and most of which are not. It means sharing some of who you are so that they feel safe sharing some of who they are.

But even that’s not enough

Everything above assumes that we’re dealing with people like us, only older or younger. That’s not true anymore. My friend and global management expert, Melissa Lamson, helped me understand why more and more managers are managing in a “global” environment they might not realize it.

More US companies are doing business in other countries than ever. And there are more companies headquartered outside the US who employ Americans. The managers in those companies will have to get used to the cultures of the people they deal with.

US demographics have been changing ever since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 changed the mix of immigrants flowing into the US. You’re likely to be working with some of those immigrants or their children.

More and more of the people you deal with every day will have grown up in cultures that are quite different from your own, even if they grew up in the US. It’s going to take more than reading an article or two to understand why they might choose the equivalent of gum for breakfast.

You’ll probably need to do a little research on the culture involved. You’ll have to learn something about another culture or two or three. You’ll probably get things wrong more than you would with people who grew up in cultures like yours. You’ll probably have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and with learning instead of knowing how to act.

It won’t be easy, but there will be times you get it right.

“Hey,” I called into the den. “How about if I make us some pancakes for breakfast?”

“Yes, sir! That would be great!”

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