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Don’t Know Much About History

Shared history and intergenerational vision make people more resilient.

April 23, 2013
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To paraphrase philosopher George Santayana, those who can’t remember their past are condemned to repeat it.

As it turns out, it’s actually worse than that. Psychologists now say our ignorance about history makes us not just prone to the same mistakes, it also makes us less able to deal with the realities of the present.

As a new parent, this is important to me. I’m always on the hunt for tips about how to raise a smart, well-adjusted, happy and healthy child who is not just a good person but has the grace and fortitude to deal with the challenges life will present him.

There’s no shortage of prey in the information-hungry parent’s hunt for ideas. From tiger parenting to attachment parenting, the cry-it-out method for quelling nighttime crying to co-sleeping, we’re awash in ideas. With so much information and so little time to learn and apply it, I’d even say we’re adrift.

But as it turns out, one of the best ways to raise a child equipped to deal with challenge and change is one of the simplest. It’s not a complicated philosophy or detailed approach that requires an advanced degree in psychology or early child development to understand and apply. It’s not a step-by-step method that promises dramatic results if you buy the book, take the class or download the curriculum. It’s free and what you need to carry it out is already available. The answer: Teach your children about their family history.

As described in a recent New York Times article by author Bruce Feiler, Emory University psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush developed a set of 20 questions, called the “Do You Know?” scale, that asked kids if they knew where their grandparents grew up, where their mom and dad went to high school and how they met and about illnesses or tragedies that had struck the extended family.

What they found was that the kids who knew more about their family’s history, both the good and the bad, showed higher self-esteem and reported a stronger sense of control over their lives. Children who saw themselves as part of an extended, intergenerational narrative were not only happier in general, they were also more resilient in the face of stress and setback.

As a parent, that’s good to know. Time to brush up on the family history and let grandma and grandpa tell those same old stories you dreaded when you were a kid. As a professional, it’s useful too. Just as kids who know the family history are better able to cope with stress and change, organizations that share a history and intergenerational vision should be better able to deal with obstacles.

I’m not suggesting that how adults work in complex global organizations can be boiled down to a simple child-rearing philosophy. But employees, whether they are part of a staff of 10 or 10,000, are each individuals with their own motivations, challenges and experiences. And those individual experiences and motivations are not always aligned to corporate priorities. In fact, many times they are in opposition.

When we discuss corporate culture and change management, that’s really what we’re talking about. Programs and tactics will come and go. What we’re really after is defining a shared purpose and bringing a collective vision into focus that aligns people, resources and processes.

From a talent management standpoint, that alignment can take place in many ways. At McDonald’s corporate headquarters outside of Chicago, founder Ray Kroc’s desk and office are set up in the entryway to the company’s training center, Hamburger University. Every time new corporate hires or restaurant franchisees come through, they not only hear about the company’s history, they see it.

When Qualcomm cut the ribbon on the Qualcomm Museum in 2010 to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary and highlight the tech company’s contribution to the evolution of mobile technology and its vision for the future, it burnished the corporate reputation and raised its profile externally. But it also communicated internally to employees a vision, educated them about their history together and developed a shared purpose and narrative to which each person — whether in the corporate suite or on the shop floor — is a contributor.

That’s a history lesson worth repeating.

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