As old paradigms fall by the wayside, how we shape company culture and do business altogether is transforming at breakneck speeds.
For close to two decades, I’ve served as a summer camp counselor for kids between the ages of eight to 13. It’s a great program, and was always one of the highlights of my summer. We’d take the kids on hikes, go canoeing, stargaze, do arts and crafts - the typical summer camp stuff that developed personal growth, and an appreciation for the natural environment.
One of the activities that we all loved most at camp was the annual end-of-summer dance that we held for our oldest kids. Before sending them back home, we’d pack the middle school campers into the lodge and watch as they found the courage to let go of their self-conscious restraints, and just have a good time dancing together.
Up until about five years ago, that summer camp had an unspoken policy regarding slow dances. If one individual asked another individual to dance, they weren’t allowed to say no. Back in the day, the rule was developed to protect the self-esteem of the individual requesting the dance. A jeering “no” could be quite damaging to a youngster wading knee deep through the waters of attraction, and emotional self-discovery.
But anyone in the present can see how this is a problem. Times change, and so should the rules. Eventually my fellow staff members and I realized that granting individuals the option to say no was essential and just as important as trying to minimize ridicule, and so the rule was actively changed -while of course the utmost courtesy and respect between campers.
But here’s the honest truth, though I knew discontinuing the “no saying no” policy was the right thing to do, part of me did feel a twinge of sadness at its abiliton. After all, I’ve been a 13-year-old kid before — and having been rejected a few times myself, I can understand how deeply detrimental that can be to a child’s development. I realized that the now-repealed rule had actually invoked a sense of nostalgia in me. But just because I was nostalgic about it didn't mean that the rule should still stand today.
Cultural norms like the summer camp rule change all the time, and corporate culture is no exception. As old paradigms fall by the wayside, how we shape company culture and do business altogether is transforming at breakneck speeds.
Take, for example, the accelerating emphasis on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB). Sixty years ago, it was rare to find a company with a DEIB policy in its employee guidebook. Today, DEIB is widely accepted as an integral cornerstone of corporate culture; employees of organizations that commit to DEIB are more likely to report a sense of pride, engagement and enjoyment at work. Not even thirty years ago was this the case.
What’s more, the digitization that’s sweeping across industries is occurring so fast that getting employees up to speed has become increasingly challenging. Thanks to catalysts such as Industry 4.0 and the global pandemic, our innovation has quickly outpaced our ability to adapt.
So, how does nostalgia tie into all this?
Increasingly, I’ve noticed notes of nostalgia finding their way into conversations about workplace transformations. Some people are nostalgic about the days they’d pick up the phone instead of firing off an email. Others reminisce on the days they’d have business meetings at the local diner versus on Zoom; both harmless examples. But what about when individuals reminisce about the days where individuals were allowed to make (insensitive) jokes without worrying about getting in trouble, or the good ‘ol days when meetings were run by the adults and the young folks were relegated to note-taking and correspondence?
In the face of huge upheavals, people often turn to nostalgia to cope, but when does nostalgia become a form of resistance?
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that nostalgia is an integral part of a person’s identity, and is therefore a valid emotion to experience. It’s a way for people to connect with their past contributions to our working world. Even still, I can’t help but ask myself: does nostalgia have an adverse effect on our ability to adapt?
Nostalgia, as it turns out, is a pretty powerful psychological phenomenon. When leveraged correctly, it can ease stress, cultivates psychological resilience and make people feel inspired.
But it also has a dark side. When left unchecked, I’ve seen it become a pronounced rebellion against the present, and that’s when it hinders individuals and organizations from advancing, both culturally and in terms of performance.
Racism, sexism, homophobia and other institutionalized human rights violations played (and still play) a role inhibiting the growth and promotion of associates. When nostalgia creates a longing for the past, and a notion that the “good ‘ol days” were in fact, comparatively better than the present, that’s when we cross over into resistance to the present. The days where colleagues could rattle off jokes that would probably get them fired today, or make advances on staff members without getting written up. Are these really the “good ‘ol days” that we want to be looking fondly back upon?
I understand it’s not all black and white. That’s why I believe it’s important for managers to take their employees’ backgrounds into consideration when dealing with nostalgic comments. No one is responsible for the time they grew up in, and it’s valid for them to feel nostalgic toward the past. Assuming they’re in a reasonable conversation (i.e., they’re not under attack for their race, gender, or other identity), managers and employees should understand that nostalgia is a powerful human emotion, and that most aren’t immune to a walk down memory lane. However, when it comes to positive, progressive change, we can’t let it get in the way.
In the midst of a global pandemic and societal upheavals, it’s never been clearer: we have a responsibility to make the world a better place. For most of us, that’s why we’re working: to inspire and implement meaningful change. That means we can leverage nostalgia as the driving force for motivation and meaning, but we have to look past our old ways to forge a better future.
Yes, nostalgia is valid and should be acknowledged. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that nostalgic emotions should dictate behaviors at work — just like my old summer camp shouldn’t tell the kids they can’t say no to hopeful dance partners. Do we want to stay stuck in the past, or continue forging paths to newer frontiers ahead?
The future is fast approaching. How we shape that future is up to us.
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