In this episode, herdacious host Lorelei chats with Susan Combs about intergenerational conflict in the workplace. Intergenerational conflict involves social, cultural, or economic discrepancies between those of different generations; and oftentimes, we are not fully aware of how the issue affects our workplace dynamics. As an organizational leader who recently discovered the existence of intergenerational conflict in her own workplace, Susan recounts her learned experience of how we can best recognize and resolve intergenerational discord so that employees of all backgrounds and experiences can feel valued and respected. From bystander interventions to collecting and responding to data, Susan helps us realize that once we focus on overcoming the problems intergenerational conflict presents, positivity and an equal platform for being heard are sure to follow! So, let’s be receptive and open-minded to others’ ideas to ultimately begin bridging the gap between all generations. Besides, Rome wasn’t built in a day… or by a single generation for that matter.
Host: Lorelei Gonzalez
Co-host: Susan Combs, JD
Susan Combs is a successful, experienced executive at both the state and federal level. In Texas she served in several elected positions: as the Comptroller/ Treasurer; the first woman Agriculture commissioner; and was also a state legislator. She most recently served as the Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior. She also served as the Chair of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission to celebrate the19th Amendment centennial in August of 2020. Susan is the Founder of HERdacity, launching the organization in 2015 as part of her long-running passion for promoting women to leadership roles and personal success. As a business owner, she operates a grazing and hunting operation on her ranch in the Big Bend of Texas.
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Lorelei: Welcome to HERdacious, a podcast for audacious women. A warm welcome to you all to HERdacious, the podcast for audacious women looking to make some career moves, and HERdacious is in your corner. My name's Lorelei, the happy host of this show, and today, I have a very cool conversation for you. We're gonna be talking about intergenerational conflict. And to assist us in this very interesting conversation, I have the energetic problem solver, former Texas comptroller, the first female Ag Commissioner of Texas, and recently the CFO for the US Department of the Interior. Susan Combs.
Susan: Good afternoon.
Lorelei: Hello, how are you doing it?
Susan: I am doing great. It's a wonderful day.
Lorelei: Is it is a pleasure to have you here with us.
Susan: Thank you so much. Always happy to be talking to folks at HERdacity.
Lorelei: Yes, so Susan, please define intergenerational conflict for us. So we really have a full understanding of what we're gonna be talking about today.
Susan: It's a very interesting notion, and it's partly attitude, it's partly culture, and it is a disparity between what I would call sort of the book ends of the age groups. So intergenerational may mean it's generational differences. You might have 20-year-olds, having perspectives that are very different from 50-year-olds, and I had really never thought about intergenerational conflict until I ran across it in my last job. I find it fascinating and fortunately, fixable.
Lorelei: Excellent. How is intergenerational conflict different from ageism, which I think we're a little more familiar with.
Susan: Yes, I think ageism is really generally described as a kind of discrimination, and it may mean that you don't get hired for something, you may not get recognized. It's because you are of a particular age, it's most likely going to be people older. You see that a lot, whereas intergenerational conflict is you're already in the workplace and you're finding that there are differences of opinion, perspective, culture, experiences and knowledge base.
Lorelei: Okay, now you mentioned that you became aware of this challenge in your last job, why did addressing intergenerational conflict becomes so important to you?
Susan: Well, what happened was I just got to the Department of the Interior and they had just done a lot of work on finding out what the workplace environment was like. They've done a big study and it was something that came up that sort of surprised everybody, which was that 35% of their employees believe that they had been subjected to harassing conduct. That was not so much of a shock, not good news, but what was very surprising was that intergenerational conflict, people who felt they had experienced that was 20.5%. It was higher, than gender harassment at 18%. And so that was totally unexpected. The work had been done to serve the environment because of some concerns about sexual harassment in a particular place. This came out of nowhere, and the number of 20.5% was large enough that obviously we had to address it, had to learn about it, had to think about it. And I think it was extraordinarily eye-openening. Why does it matter? Because when you have a large organization, and really this is actually true of any organization, if you have varying strata of age groups, they can be very, very different in their attitudes about a lot of things.
Lorelei: How would anyone know if intergenerational conflict was a challenge in their work environment?
Susan: You don't know until you find out, and I think what that says is, for anybody in management, in their environment, you have to start assessing what's the climate, what's the mood, what are people's burr under their collective saddles. And so unless you do the data gathering, unless you ask the question - do you allow them to be answered anonymously, you may not know that these are problems. This was a problem that was not previously known.
Lorelei: Why is that anonymity important?
Susan: People don't wanna be chastised for an answer to something. So I think you have to have an anonymous survey that you can reply to anonymously. I think then you're likely to get more honest answers. I'm not afraid of being chastised in some way or another, mistreated in some way or another. As a manager would really want to know, and I as an employee, not in the management ranks, I wanna be heard, and I can feel free to express myself. I am really sorry, management, but I don't think you understand how I feel about A, B, and C, and I'm gonna tell you how I feel about it. So I think you have to be willing to do the hard work, ask the questions, and then the harder work of accepting the answers.
Lorelei: How do you think this type of conflict, intergenerational conflict, can affect employees specifically? Those negatively affected by the intergenerational conflict itself.
Susan: I think it's a great question, Lorelei. It's different. The two ends, I would say, get a different result. If I'm in my 20's, whatever, I've always wanted to be in this department or this job or whatever. I feel like there's an escalator waiting for me in my future, I can get on that escalator and I can rise and I see another escalated, I get on that escalator. I have an upward mobility in my future. Well, I am told that maybe I don't know enough to even get on the escalator, if I'm the young person. Or, you're not smart enough to get on the escalator.
Susan: Exactly. On the other hand, I may think that the person in her 50's kind of an old fogy, they're outdated, their ideas aren't relevant to me in my much younger form, so that's not good. So I'm the older person, I can't seem to bridge the gap with these people, they may be a lot more technologically savvy, they may not. But they're not willing to listen to my years of knowledge that I have worked so hard to get, right? And so if you can't have that collaboration, that communication, the teamwork suffers. I would say efficiency on projects which require more than one person suffers, and I think the older person may feel somewhat dismayed. Why don't they understand how much stuff I've got in my head, how much I already know if they would just let me visit with them. Conversely, the person in their 20's is saying, why is he or she's always talking down on me. So it's really a matter of bringing them together where they feel they can actually have a fair exchange, and you really want an environment where you can fairly collaborate and exchange ideas. So let's suppose somebody new comes and we're trying to get a lot of younger people in, and we want them to get it. We know that we're gonna have people retiring, but one of the things we have to have is we have to have an atmosphere of trust within the work environment that people feel they can stay. So they feel that they can be heard, and feel that their opinions are valued. So getting back to the original point of the survey, when the survey goes out, if you as management pay attention, if you as management then reflect that what you heard was said, and you say, I'm going to develop resources for you, you will be heard. You will not be ignored. That trust means, "My golly, my opinion now has weight. I am truly a valued member of this organization." So whether it was multi-thousands, like the Department of the Interior, which I think they did a bang-up job, or if you can get something like HERdacity and you can talk these things through. But in any environment where you expect teamwork, then you really do have to have the ability to learn from each other, exchange knowledge, but also trust that management is paying attention.
Lorelei: When management starts to address intergenerational conflict, how can this affect leadership and management abilities?
Susan: When the data came in and it showed a lack of trust in management, and it showed they don't listen, they don't care, they don't wanna do it, but when you do respond to this information and they do address it, then you have shifted that entire landscape of lack of trust, lack of conference and this kind of a gloomy perspective. "Why am I here? They don't care." If you show that there's both cultural and practical results, one, is you have an increased collaboration or you're not talking past each other, you're now converging into the problem, you're converging in the solution. You also build coalitions around the mission of the organization. You joined this place because you like the word.
Susan: I always feel like boats are rowing and there's people at the oar. If you're all rowing in the same direction, then you have a shared experience, we're on the mission together. Like the mission to Mars, we're in the ship together, we're going there, and the team approach, which you're now open to both participating in and being valued as you can then solve more. Because I would say, unless you're Albert Einstein, two heads are better than one. And I really think there's a freshness to listing to other people. When you exchange that knowledge, you may be exchanging culture, you may be exchanging scientific data, you may be exchanging ways to problem solve, or it may simply be a way of exchanging how to talk and how to talk to each other. Perhaps the best thing we can do as a team.
Lorelei: Oh my gosh, I love that. It is so powerful. Well, we're gonna take a quick break from talking to each other for our sponsor break. We'll be right back.
Sponsor: Hi. Barbier here from Moonray, husband and wife indie-pop duo. If you enjoyed the intro music, we invite you to listen to our debut EP Honeymoon. Streaming now on all platforms. Visit www.moonray-music.com for more.
Lorelei: And we're back, talking with Susan Combs about intergenerational conflict. Now, Susan, before the break, I had asked about the positive outcomes of addressing intergenerational conflict. How do we start to change our work cultures if intergenerational conflict is an ongoing challenge?
Susan: I think the first thing you have to do is say management and leadership has to start at the top. So let me tell you what we did at the department. We required every single supervisor, and there were 9,000 of them, who had to take Civil Treatment for Leaders courses. Now, what I love about that name is there has to be civil treatment lessons and the leaders have to go to these civil treatment classes, and that allowed them to hear and understand. And they were required to go. You as a manager, as a supervisor, you set the tone. And if you don't require civility and conversation, civility and fair treatment of each other, shame on you. So that was done, but then once you take that step and you launch on the path of talking about change, you must implement it, you must follow through, and you can't give it lip service. It's about your credibility and that is the flip side. Or maybe the 180 degree of trust. If I don't see on the lower level employee, I don't see any reaction, I don't see anything happening, then I don't trust them. But if there are things happening and it is clear, they heard and they implemented civil treatment for leaders, and then they keep going down through the system, I think that is really important. So one of the things that was done in order to walk along that path, is to just show that we were gonna do it, was to go ahead and set up having classes on intergenerational conflict. But that was paired with something very interesting, it was paired with bystander intervention.
Susan: So bystander intervention, everybody knows what that means. If you see something, say something, and help. Well, bystander intervention really applies across all forms of harassment or workplace strife or struggle.
Susan: And it's enterprise-wide, it covers everything, and so if you could train the folks to really be brave in whatever style suits their personality, intervene, we felt pairing that with this sort of outlier of intergenerational conflict was gonna be a great way to give a leavening of the entire process. Everybody knows that sexual harassment is bad, but we weren't so aware or familiar with, hadn't thought so much about intergenerational conflict. So pairing that with the bystander intervention, we thought was absolutely a powerful ally in this entire culture change.
Lorelei: Right. 'Cause you're sharing accountability and responsibility for good behavior for civil behavior in the workplace. 'Cause initially we were talking a lot about leadership responsibility, top-down approach, and now you're saying we also have to attack it from the flip side, from the bottom up, because so many of us are witness to some of these challenges, some of these negative interactions in the workplace.
Susan: We were happy to read in the original data that we got, which was that of the people who had seen or witnessed a harassing event that a large number of them like 45% or 50% of them said they had intervened.
Lorelei: Oh, wow.
Susan: And that was exciting, and if you can assist people in being valuable team members to help change the culture as a bystander, you've kind of doubled and tripled your effort. And one of the things that we did that I was really happy with was the deputy secretary and the secretary gave me some money to set up workplace culture transformation advisory council. And I chaired it. And what I liked was the name... Workplace Culture Transformation Advisory Council. And our first permanent head was a wonderful woman, Tammy DeShay, she did a fantastic job. The name was chosen carefully, culture transformation. Those two are actually really positive together. So with this workplace culture transformation advisory council, we did a couple of things, and I'll talk about about that later, but basically messaging went out, everybody was involved, it was bottoms-up, top down, and there were messages across the middle. And then one other thing that we did was we did another follow-up data gathering. We did use a Survey Monkey for questions to just see what they were still hearing some time later, so I would say you do your first data gathering, you do ongoing data gathering, but you have positive messaging.
Lorelei: I imagine that was probably one of your bigger takeaways from this intergenerational conflict learning experience. What were some of your others?
Susan: I think, first of all, you look at the data very carefully. Then you look at the people that they're covering, so if you have very different groups, tailor your messages to the groups with their own statistics.
Susan: So then they get engaged in making their own numbers better, they're inside with you, they're not coming from the outside, they're part of the solution. And I really think that also speaks to "Don't attack, encourage" positive framing. Positive framing, I think, is so important. But also to hold yourself accountable, to figure out, do you have a way to have some accountability measure in place so you can check your behavior, check your performance, and you can do that in a lot of ways. You may do an additional survey, you may do a Survey Monkey kind of thing, you may do just an anonymous questionnaire, depends on how large your organization is. Hold yourself accountable, check your own homework, and let the individual groups also check their homework. And I would say one of the other things that I learned was that positive is good, negative is bad, positive creates a... "Well, I'm optimistic that we can get this better," and optimism is a powerful trend builder.
Lorelei: To dig in to that point for just a second, you were in politics for a while, you know how polarized this world is right now, unfortunately. Please share a little bit more on why word choice matters, because I can see that you're very intentional about this positive framing of how we speak to each other.
Susan: I'll give you an example, then a longer term example, and words do matter. Just for this, I would refer people to go to www.moreincommon [dot] com. It's a recent analysis of Texas and how polarized people think they are. And in a nutshell, the answer is no. When you use more generic, less hostile framing of course, they feel that way. And the middle swells and the outliers shrink, and this was sort of encapsulated for me in a phrase that a cousin from San Antonio used, and it resonates. "No negative cha cha."
Lorelei: No negative cha cha.
Susan: We all know what cha cha is, we know when we see it. It's negative words. And just don't do it. And so whether it is in talking to somebody that's with this intergenerational, whether whatever kind of workplace sort of grinding there is, words matter. And you must be intentional. And you own those words when they've left your mouth, you can't call them back, you can apologize, but they're out there drifting. And so, be intentional, be positive, and I think it brings people together.
Lorelei: I love that. That's a really powerful way to wrap our episode. To close us out here, give us a few more resources that our listeners can check out if they wanna continue their journey learning about intergenerational conflict and how to resolve it.
Susan: Well, obviously, HERdacity [dot] org is a great resource. And the reason I say that is I founded it. So, I'm kind of partial to that. But the point is, it's a safe place for you to talk about it, and you can get advice, and you have intergenerational strata of people in HERdacity, so that's a good resource. For the perspective of simply continuing the belief that actually words do matter, do go look at moreincommon [dot] com. They issued the report here in Texas on Monday, April the 26th, and it is fascinating. Their goal is to reduce conflict, reduce polarization. Go look at their website. And theirs was inter-generational. But when I saw the work they were doing on more in common, I thought, "Yes, yes, yes, words matter, positivity matters, listening to somebody else getting into their head." Don't have an attack shower of words, 'cause you won't get through the rain. But pay attention to each other. Of course, finally the ultimate safe place for everybody is to talk to a coach. Coaches can be so good, they have a wonderful third party view. Sponsors and mentors, I like them both, they can be very helpful and they're generally not cold-blooded, they're always nice. And then, of course, your favorite kitchen cabinet made up of whoever that is, who you trust and who you're willing to take a little kind communication from.
Lorelei: Love that, thank you for those resources and for all of the information you've shared with us today. Now, to transition to the end of our show, as we do, I'm going to share a femme fact with you. In a galaxy far, far away, there was a movie called Hidden Figures, which centered around the lives of three prominent female pioneers who worked at NASA. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, who were absolute brainiacs when it came to running the computers at NASA, including John Glenn's 1962 mission to orbit the Earth, and thereafter on countless other space travel missions. Although Hidden Figures was Hollywood's take on history, there were several aspects that remained true to real life source material. One of which was Katherine Johnson's unmatched brilliance in mathematics. Her ability to compute math equations longer than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, by hand no less, was indeed a truth to be told. Katherine was regarded as one of the most brilliant math minds in the country up until her recent passing at the age of 101 last February. Another historical accuracy in the movie was the emergence of electronic computer programming.
In the 60's, NASA acquired electronic computers from IBM to increase accuracy of calculations needed in space flight, and the reception of these computers was not super great, especially being very vocally opposed by the men working at NASA as they believed their own human calculations were far superior to that of any sort of technology. Do with that info as you will. Consequently, women saw an opportunity and learned to operate these computers, thereby securing future roles within NASA, thus women became the experts in computer programming. Quite ironic, considering the present day deficit of women in computer engineering professions. Now women shattering ceilings in the realm of space exploration has not stopped since. The following are just a handful of women breaking barriers within NASA. Way back in the day, I have Pearl Young. Pearl was the first female professional to be hired at NASA when women within the organization had been historically limited to secretarial or administrative roles. Pearl worked at The Langley Memorial aeronautical laboratory. She was responsible for developing a highly successful system of technical writing and procedural development that would allow the organization to move to more effectively document their data and missions after she had noticed a lack of sufficient systems of technical writing in the organization. She became Langley's first chief technical editor and the system she developed remains in use at NASA still today.
Next we have Nancy Grace Roman. Nancy was an American astronomer who worked on stellar classification in NASA. She's credited with creating NASA's space astronomy program and is also nicknamed the Mother of Hubble for her large role in planning the Hubble Space Telescope. Nancy served as the chief of astronomy and relativity, and her work was so profound that NASA is naming a new dark energy telescope after her, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is currently under construction at NASA today.
Moving on, we have Ellen Ochoa. Ellen became the first Hispanic woman to go space in 1993. Ellen served on a nine-day mission aboard the Discovery space shuttle, and in 2012 became the director of the Johnson Space Center where she again set another milestone as the first Hispanic Director and the second female Director of the Johnson Space Center.
In more recent news, Holly Ridings was named NASA's first female flight director of mission control back in 2018. In her role, Ridings is responsible for overseeing 32 flight directors of human spaceflight missions to the International Space Station and the Orion spacecraft.
Women have slowly but surely been creating space for themselves within NASA, pun unintended. For instance, the first all female spacewalk at the International Space Station was carried out in October of 2018. However, as with all things concerning women's advancement, there is still much more room for improvement. Out of the 565 folks who've gone to space, only 65 of them have been women. Out of the 40 active astronauts currently serving at NASA, only 16 of them are women. And women only make up about one third of NASA'S entire workforce, 28% of women are in senior executive positions, and a mere 16% are in senior scientific roles within NASA. Now, women in STEM and women in NASA might presently be the minority, but those numbers are growing and we're hearing more and more about ambitious young girls and women working to be astronauts and engineers and inventors ready to shatter more ceilings to claim their destinies. And that makes us all very, very proud here at HERdacious. There was a point in time when we thought it was impossible to send a man to the moon, and when we did it, we said, "that's one step for man." So ladies, let's keep changing the world and making those giant leaps forward for woman kind. Susan, you have been an absolute inspiration to us today for all the giant leaps forward you made in your career, and for the helpful information that you provided with us today.
Susan: Thank you so much. And I love what you were saying. I love the movie Hidden Figures. And STEM is so important. Ladies, it's time for us all to take off into space.
Lorelei: That's right. Thank you, Susan. Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoyed our show, I ask you to please subscribe and to share the show with someone who you think might benefit from it. We never know who might be inspired by a story or learning about a new challenge that they think they might be able to solve. We need all those problem solvers to come together. My name is Lorelei and I was so glad you chose to join us today.