For those of you who are familiar with Saturday Night Live’s* “Debbie Downer”
character, you know “womp womp” is the sound that’s made after Debbie says something to totally
bring the room down and make the optimistic and enthusiastic people around her
For many GenX-ers in the workplace, it feels like we’re the ones crushing everybody’s dreams. When Generation X came of age, we were labeled as pessimistic and cynical. But as mentioned in this post, the blinders were off for Generation X. We saw things as they were and it shaped our worldview. We learned how to assess situations and figured out how to accomplish goals within the framework. It made us pragmatic.
It’s easy to mistake good old fashioned GenX pragmatism for negativism in the workplace, especially when we’re sandwiched in between two generations known for their idealism. Boomers have always been idealistic—remember, this was the generation that was going to change the world. They continue to be defined by their sense of purpose. Boomers who are in leadership roles often want to do what’s best for the organization, but may forget (or choose not) to seek input from lower levels of the organization, perhaps because when Boomers came of age in the workplace, nearly all decisions were made top-down.
Millennials (the children of late Boomers, let’s not forget) have a similar mindset. They want a sense of purpose in their work. Their desire for a “flatter” organization structure is tied to the belief that ideas are equal regardless of the source, and that everyone is a major stakeholder. Millennials believe that they themselves can impact sweeping change.
And here comes Generation X, appearing to crap on everyone. We’re the ones telling our Boomer bosses why that decision that was made without proper input from lower levels has some devils in the details and needs to be modified. Our Millennial subordinates (or peers) walk away pissed when we tell them that their proposal for a new product can’t be explored right now because it is off budget cycle and also will need at least six months more development time. Womp womp.
Pragmatists focus on how to get things done. They can see the big picture but also potential barriers that could get in the way of success, and they tend to want to spend energy overcoming the roadblocks. Often times this can look like micromanaging, but in actuality, pragmatic leaders are as goal-focused as idealistic ones.
What can we GenX leaders do to repair our sullied reputations? First, we can sell the idea of pragmatism as a virtue. Pragmatism favors action, and action fuels progress. Hey idealists—we want what you want. We’re not stonewalling or stalling. We’re anticipating. We’re figuring stuff out on the front end so we’re not cleaning up a mess later on.
Second, we can embrace idealism. Wait, what? If there is downside to pragmatism, it is that it tends to exist within a current state. A dose of idealism is necessary to envision that future state. Idealism and pragmatism together fuel innovation.
So the next time a Boomer leader shares the “next big thing” that the senior staff came up with, or when a Millennial on your team presents you with her third new idea of the day, respond in the spirit of collaboration. “This is some great thinking. Let’s put our heads together and see if we can make this happen.”
* Points for you if you understood the Debbie Downer reference without explanation. Knowledge of pop culture is another calling card of Generation X. More about that in a future post.