The Real Reason ‘Cancel Culture’ Is Destroying the American Workplace

·5 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

A new generation is entering the workforce as industry leaders are reinventing how workplaces operate in the 21st century. While some exciting changes are taking place, there is a lot of chatter out there about one distracting business topic: “cancel culture.”

For the past five years, Americans have obsessed over cancel culture. Unfortunately, this debate has seeped into conversations around the corporate environment, from bosses and companies to industries. Often, the controversy depicts Gen Z and millennial employees as annoying, sensitive babies who refuse to adapt to the workplace. Much of the time, the debate centers around how seasoned bosses (also known as inflexible older managers) fear for their careers and maybe—at least according to the most dramatic parties in this debate—their lives. But this conversation fails to acknowledge what is actually happening at the office. Are we so busy focusing on the negative (the bad boss of the week if you will) that we miss out on how this moment offers huge opportunities for companies to leverage and improve their culture and their financial performance?

‘Cancel Culture’ Is Actually as American as Apple Pie

I have an opportunity to see both perspectives. For the past 20 years, I have worked as an executive coach and have consulted for leaders in every field from finance to tech to aerospace. More recently, my perspective has been sharpened through my leadership podcast, Unfolding Leadership, where leaders talk about their bumps and bruises and moments of success. I have seen tremendous workplace improvement across the board. Employees, bosses and companies are doing some really great work, but a lot of that good stuff we seem to be missing and/or talking about a lot less since the cancel culture debate has infested organizations in damaging ways, preferring to amplify the negatives.

Let’s start with employees. People stigmatize Generation Z and millennials as the first group to come along with different ideas about what work means. As someone born right between Generation X and millennials, I recall walking into boomers’ offices and having leaders question my work habits, confidence, and experience. One of those boomers has also been my business partner since 2010, and I’m sure there are times where he still questions my sanity. Other “older” leaders used to suggest I wear pantyhose and told my male counterparts to get rid of their facial hair. The reality is that every generation entering the workforce is an enigma until they are not.

Generation Z and millennials may seem like oddities, but they’re far from the stereotype most often portrayed. Previous generations worked hard and listened to their bosses, which meant they were less inclined to point out when their bosses were pouring financial resources into doomed projects, missing an opportunity or thinking about something differently than the rest of the world. Today, employees engage and challenge their bosses, ask tough questions, and sometimes even inform those more senior when they could be walking into disaster. When it comes to the bottom line, more vocal employees bring new perspectives and positive results. Leaders want and need to hear the truth, which has not always happened with past generations.

This honest dialogue is a new feature in many workplaces. Although some leaders have always welcomed feedback, many earlier generations of bosses ignored and dismissed their younger employees’ concerns. (Just ask all the advertising agency veterans who are still kicking themselves for ignoring their interns’ suggestion to look into Facebook in 2006.)

Thoughtful leaders recognize that today’s entry-level employee is tomorrow’s future client and consumer. Whether it’s a non-fiction television production company or an engineering firm, companies are relying on younger employees to innovate new products. Today’s twentysomethings have used tech since elementary school, whereas many boomers and Gen Xers have adapted to technology very slowly and late in their careers. Smart leaders are welcoming younger employees into the fold and leveraging the heck out of the new perspectives they bring to the table.

A majority of middle-aged bosses are learning more, being more agile, and crowdsourcing younger staffers’ opinions. Instead of running away from Gen Z, as the media portrays, bosses are asking, “How do we do this differently and better?”

Workplaces have improved beyond bosses and lower-tier employees. Across companies, human resource departments are evolving. Once upon a time, HR created policies around the black sheep of an employee base. They were concerned about the one person who would break that one rule, push the boundaries, and/or make the wrong choice for a work environment. Now, HR departments are thinking about other questions. Instead of asking, “How can we stop that one person from wearing a crop top to work?” they’re asking, “How can we move people forward, how do we attract, develop, and engage our employee base? How can we maintain work/life balance, so we retain employees?”

Cancel culture has driven everyone from the business community to the media to talk about fear and what could go wrong for a boss, a company, and an industry. In the process, we’ve missed out on how much can go right. So often when we discuss cancel culture, we discuss the negative instead of the evolution of the workplace. And the biggest aspect we miss is that the evolution of bosses, employees, human resources, companies, and industries has increased growth in so many sectors. When bosses work past fear and recognize the employees they’re leading—and have the support of—leaders have so many opportunities to leverage. When they take advantage of that leverage, the impact can be huge. But we’re all missing out on this growth story by focusing on cancel culture. It’s time to pivot the conversation to what’s actually happening in successful workplaces across America, and that change is often uncomfortable, but needed and good.

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