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Yes, Your Nostalgia Is Valid. That Doesn't Mean It Belongs At Work.

As old paradigms fall by the wayside, how we shape corporate culture and do business altogether is transforming at breakneck speeds.

For close to two decades, I’ve been a summer camp counselor for kids ages 8-13. It’s long been one of the highlights of my summer. We’d take the kids on hikes, go canoeing, stargaze, do arts and crafts--typical camp stuff that fosters personal growth and an appreciation for nature.

One of our favorite activities was the annual end-of-summer dance for our oldest kids. Before sending them home, we’d pack the middle school campers into the lodge and watch as they found the courage to just have a good time dancing together. 

Until five years ago, camp had an unspoken policy regarding slow dances: If one kid asked another to dance, they weren’t allowed to say no—a rule created to protect the self-esteem and feelings of the asker.

But times change, and so should the rules. Eventually my fellow staffers and I realized that letting kids respectfully decline a dance was as important as trying to avoid hurt feelings, and so the rule was changed.

While I knew discontinuing the “no saying no” policy was warranted, I felt a twinge of sadness. I’ve been a 13-year-old kid before, and having been rejected a few times myself, I understood how detrimental rejection can be to a child’s development. I realized that the now-repealed rule had made me nostalgic--but that didn't mean the rule should remain.

Our Work Culture Is Changing

Cultural norms change frequently, and corporate culture is no exception. As old paradigms fall by the wayside, how we shape workplace culture and conduct business is transforming at breakneck speeds.

Consider the accelerating emphasis on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB). While 60 years ago, a company with a DEIB policy in its employee handbook was a rare find, 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--far from the case even just three decades ago.

Meanwhile, the digitization sweeping across industries is happening so fast that upskilling employees 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? 

More and more, I’ve noticed notes of nostalgia in conversations about workplace transformations. Some people long for the days they’d pick up the phone instead of firing off an email. Others reminisce about having business meetings a few years ago at a restaurant versus on Zoom. But what to do when some miss the days when employees could make (insensitive) jokes without worrying about consequences?

In the face of huge upheavals, people often turn to nostalgia to cope, but when does nostalgia become a form of resistance? 

To me, nostalgia is an integral part of a person’s identity, and therefore a valid emotion--a way to connect past contributions to our modern working world. But does nostalgia also have an adverse effect on our ability to adapt?

How Nostalgia Affects Our Attitude Toward Change

Nostalgia is actually a powerful psychological phenomenon. When leveraged correctly, it can ease stress, cultivates psychological resilience, and inspire. 

But when left unchecked,I’ve seen it become a pronounced rebellion against the present, and that’s when it hinders the progress of individuals and organizations.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other institutionalized human rights violations have played--and still play--a role in inhibiting growth and advancement. When nostalgia creates a longing fora past when colleagues could tell jokes that might well get them fired today, or sexually harass staff members without consequence, is when we cross over into resistance.

It’s not all black and white--which is why it’s important for managers to take employees’ backgrounds into consideration when dealing with problematic nostalgic comments. No one can help the time they grew up in. Most of us aren’t immune to a walk down memory lane--but when it comes to positive, progressive change, we can’t let it interfere.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

In the midst of a global pandemic and societal upheavals, it’s never been clearer that we have a responsibility to make the world a better place, and do our part to inspire and implement meaningful change. We can leverage nostalgia as the driving force for motivation and meaning, but we have to move past our old ways to forge a better future. 

Nostalgia shouldn’t 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 fresh paths to newer and better frontiers ahead? 

The future is fast approaching--how we shape it is up to us. 

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