Spring Break Study Abroad to Prague: Part 3

This entry should be titled: Professors Learn Things, too.

In addition to focusing on what the students can learn about multicultural teams in multinational organizations, I also used this trip as a way to enrich my own understanding of work and employees.  I’m an organizational scientist.  Nonetheless, I do not spend a lot of time in organizations talking with organizational leaders and regular employees about their jobs. I find that not only do I translate my copious notes during the visit into fancy pants theoretical comments (e.g., when the leader says that he told the teammates in conflict to work it out, I translated that into “Socializing the group into norms of working behavior dealing with intercultural conflict”), I also come back to my teaching with rich examples of work behavior that can help me explain organizational theories to my students.

STICK WITH ME HERE: It’s not that boring.

So last night’s graduate I/O class dealt with careers.  We talked about structure vs. agency (i.e., institutional and organizational constraints vs. individual choice). I had a great example from the trip about the constraints of a communist country over who can actually have a job (only those who support the communist party) and what education can they pursue (not what they want, but what is needed by the country) and an individual’s powerful choice to defect from said country and start a successful career on another continent in another language and then come back after communism fell and start ANOTHER career based on what he really wanted to do in the first place.

That’s not really an example that comes to mind when we think of institutional constraints and individual choice. Yet, I’d argue that this extreme example makes it easier to understand the more nuanced examples of career constraints and choices we see in the US.

Which leads me to another insight.  My 20-something students and I are DAMN tired of hearing about how Millennials and their avocado toast are ruining America. I have always had a hard time believing in “cohorts” in organizational science: that Baby boomers vs. Gen X Vs. Millennials  vs. whatever the hell is going on now are different employees and want different things out of their jobs. First of all, it doesn’t apply to me.  I’m supposed to be at the tail end of Baby Boomers but I felt more like Gen X in attitude, and, to be honest, I love avocado toast.  Second, a lot of this analysis seems like it boils down to whatever “cohort” is in power says “those young whippersnappers don’t do it the right way, like we used to as kids.”

It’s bullshit.

But when you look at countries and analyze them by their institutional constraints (these ideas are inspired by Tomlinson et al, 2018 as well as what I learned in Prague), I think you can see when cohorts *can* develop in countries.  When the institutional constraints (e.g., the country and its culture) radically change, the people within the country change.  This change probably most relevantly affects younger people coming of age. And so yes, a “cohort” of people with different (from early generations) beliefs can emerge.

In the US? The Depression.  World War II.  The sexual and gender revolution of the 60s and 70s. Those were BIG cultural changes in our country.  But since the 70s?  I argue that things have been pretty stable since then. Yes, 9/11. But was an event, not a cultural change. So is there a “Greatest Generation” and a “Boomer” cohort?  Yes.  But afterwards? I don’t think so.  I think we just got used to expecting a cohort, so we started creating them even though they don’t exist.  ((That said: one smarty pants student suggested the ubiquitous use of technology is creating a cohort. And I think it’s possible Trump/#Enough COULD create a cohort, too))

And all of this became clear to me in listening to and attending cultural events in Prague about the 1968 Prague Spring and the 1989 Velvet Revolution.  OF COURSE, the country and the institutional culture changed.  Of course, there are likely cohort effects for employees and citizens in Czech Republic because of those events, especially for the fall of communism. I don’t think there were even business schools in Czech Republic before the fall of communism, because why would you major in Satan?

So, yeah. It seems to be that we are foolish to think there is always a cohort of employees that are vastly different than the ones before them. I suggest that only if there are substantial cultural changes that affect a whole nation should we expect entire generations to be substantially different than others.

And that is something I would not have thought of if I had not left the US and immersed myself, if only for a week, in another environment.

About Anita Blanchard

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
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