Reverse Mentoring Won’t Work

No  Respect Taken, No Respect GivenThe Wall Street Journal reports that reverse mentoring has finally cracked the workplace so that senior executives can learn more about technology, social media and the latest workplace trends.  Great idea, but reverse mentoring won’t work.  It violates the very premise of a social media environment that it purports to address.  Mentoring must be about a two-way flow of information and respect.  What organizations need is collaborative mentoring.

Reverse mentoring is exactly the wrong way to think about knowledge exchange in an organization.  We live in a time of social networks and peer-to-peer connectivity.  Calling it reverse mentoring implicitly supports the linear and uni-directional exchange of information and existing organizational hierarchies.  Reverse mentoring won’t work because it challenges not only the existing hierarchy but essentially tells someone who spent years developing skills that it’s not good enough.  Whether that’s true or not, it’s not how you encourage growth except maybe in the armed forces.  The mentoring needs to be a relationship and a bi-directional exchange — it needs to be collaborative mentoring.

I understand need to tap into the knowledge of tech-savvy employees (presumed to be younger) to bring those less technically-inclined (presumed to be older) up to speed with a ubiquitous technology world.  In the process of embracing this new culture of social technologies and social connectedness, it’s important to remember two things:

  • It is not about the tools; it’s a cultural shift
  • People’s identities are at stake

As the Wall Street Journal points out, some executives “bristle” at the thought of being mentored by someone younger, creating the Rodney Dangerfield response.  Is there no respect?  The question is really: is there no respect for me?  Because massive change, like we’ve had with social media, is a threat to our identity — it challenges our core assumptions about how the world works and our place in it.  It’s not surprising that there is a bit of discomfort and fear when it comes to new technology, particularly in the hierarchies of organizations.

Mentoring must be collaborative; an exchange of information and respect
Reverse mentoring won't work. Mentoring must be collaborative; an exchange of information and respect

This question of respect impacts pretty much everyone born before about 1985, who used to show up at the office feeling fairly competent and accomplished.  We worked hard and we knew stuff from all the years of slogging along.  We had what Rex Stout’s detective Nero Wolfe calls “wisdom guided by experience.”  Now it feels like somebody is changing the rules as the world goes digital, mobile and interconnected.  It’s like showing up to play golf with a baseball bat.

The tools are just the symptoms of a larger shift in people’s expectations about connection, access, and the time-space continuum.  We are talking about colliding cultures.  Like any good organizational psychologist will tell you, the cultures have to gain an appreciation for each other and what they bring to the party.  Reverse mentoring won’t work if you view it as having the young dogs teach the old dogs new tricks.  The key to all transactions is, as Aretha would say, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and it needs to flow both ways.  Teaching executives to use technology isn’t the same thing as integrating invaluable and hard-won wisdom and experience into social technologies and the new psychological environment they have spawned.  That will take collaborative mentoring, not reverse mentoring.

Perpetuating the Fear of Technology

Shame on LA Times columnist Sandy Banks for perpetuating ignorance and the fear of technology in her column “The stage is too big for kids” . If you want to see a parent who needs to learn more about technology, read this column. It exemplifies the response of people who aren’t willing to learn what it’s like to be a kid living with technology today.

Let me say at the outset, I have a problem with people who quote research without at least telling me what research they are quoting so I can look it up and read it myself. But that’s just a pet peeve of mine.

The main point is that Banks’ column is contributing to what communication scholar George Gerbner calls the “Mean World” syndrome, where the negative or violent content content of mass media makes people believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. In the first paragraph, Banks mentions cyberbullying, online perverts and “Facebook depression” as things “stalking our kids.” Kind of front-loaded on the scary stuff. Are these important? Yes. Should you teach your kids about them? Yes. Do they represent the bulk of Internet experience? No, not by any means.

Banks summary of part of the report follows. As you read it, be prepared to explain to me why this paragraph would have been any different 25 or even 50 years ago if we deleted the words “on Facebook.”

Apparently, kids with poor self-esteem can be pitched into depression by the perception that everyone [on Facebook] is having more fun that they are. They become obsessed with others’ status updates and friend tallies. Some withdraw and lose interest in socializing; others try to court popularity by taking desperate measures to impress others.

Banks also says:

Doctors feel the need to get involved because so many parents go to them “concerned about their children’s engagement with social media.”

This isn’t indicative of a pandemic. What caring and responsible professional would not get involved when their patients express concerns? Primary care physicians are often the first stop in pursuit of health and wellness issues and in many cases are actual gatekeepers to getting more specialized services, given the red tape of so many health insurance companies.

Banks summarizes the report’s recommendations saying, “doctors suggest that children spend less time online and that parents bone up by spending more.” The conclusions of the research team of pediatricians, however, she dismisses out of hand, saying she thinks the doctors are missing the point because “Figuring out how to upload a video of a singing dog isn’t going to keep my kids safer.”

This is frighteningly wrong on two counts, beyond showing a bit of hubris:

  1. This is not what it means to become better educated about technology.
  2. Even the amount of experience it takes to upload a funny video will give parents a better common ground for having the kinds of discussions that they need to have with their kids about technology.

How can you convince your teen that they’re investing too many hours on video games if you’ve never played one with them, asked them what they like about them, had them demonstrate their skills to, explain to you the game logic, and tell you who they play with? How can you dismiss Facebook out of hand when you don’t understand how kids use it and why? Give the kids a little respect!

The real crux of the matter is that technology is a tool that you have to learn how to use. The job of the parent is to teach their children. How many of you gripped the edge of the passenger seat as your teen learned how to drive? Or did you just hand them the keys and say “go for it!” Good parents try not to send kids out into the world unprepared; but too many parents are afraid, in denial, embarrassed to be learning from their kid, or unwilling to do the hard work of parenting.

Common Sense MediaThe millenials may be the first generation that, from a very young age, has a substantial body of knowledge and skills (often highly marketable) that their parents don’t have or understand. Try some reverse mentoring. Ask your kids to educate you about what they would want to teach their kids about the Internet and technology if they were in your shoes.

A good resource for parents who want to learn more about kids and media is the website Common Sense Media. It won’t teach you how to upload a YouTube video (you’ll have to ask your kids to help you with that) but it provides some good guidelines for how to talk to your kids about media and evaluates the age appropriateness of different media content.

Oh, and in case you’re interested, here are the report’s recommendations to pediatricians to help families navigate the social media landscape. The news release about the report is at AAP News Room and the full report is at: Clinical Report_The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families

  • Advise parents to talk to children and adolescents about their online use and the specific issues that today’s online kids face, such as cyberbullying, sexting, and difficulty managing their time.
  • Advise parents to work on their own “participation gap” in their homes by becoming better educated about the many technologies their children are using.
  • Discuss with families the need for a family online-use plan, with an emphasis on citizenship and healthy behavior.
  • Discuss with parents the importance of supervising online activities via active participation and communication, not just via monitoring software.

The one important recommendation they missed is to remind pediatricians that they need to walk the talk, too.


O’Keefe, Gwenn Schurgin, and Kathleen Clarke-Pearson. “Clinical Report_the Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families.” Pediatrics (2011),


Politicans Have a Vested Interest in Traditional Media

It’s hard (for me anyway) to not continually reflect on technology and emerging behaviors–and how that cycle manifests in the next technological development. I was reading Citizen Marketers today and the authors mentioned McLuhan’s remarks about the political changes resulting from the widespread introduction of television. This got me to the larger implications of the subtle changes in our culture from these amazing news tools and systems of connecting. In particular, I was thinking about how the incredible democratization of social media is threatening to seriously change the political arena. We saw how Obama effectively used social media to reach a new voting population. We also see him intensively using television communication—more frequently than any administration before him.  (That is not a value judgment, just an observation.)

It struck me that politicians of both affiliations should prefer traditional media, not just because they are ‘digital immigrants’ (thank you Marc Prensky) and don’t get it.  They should prefer mass media sources to social media and the Internet for the simple fact that they can better control their own message and other information flows that do or do not support their opinions. When applying social media in marketing, obviously you have to consider the implications of the energy generated by citizen coalitions and collective intelligence. What are politicians but marketers?  But they are marketers with the power to change the rules of the game.

This line of reasoning makes me think was that it wouldn’t be altogether surprising for legislators to decide it’s a good idea to impose controls on the Internet, new media, mobile media and social media.  Let’s get the FCC involved in the guise of protecting the public (usually our children) from “bad stuff.”  Politicians  generally launch these campaigns based on very little solid research but with a lot of whipped up fear.

We can (and should) certainly debate whose job it is to set standards and responsibility.  That is a separate issue.  Here I was more thinking along the lines that political careers are heavily invested in controlling information.  Whether or not to regulate new media technologies is an argument where politicians should recuse themselves because it is in their best self-interest to control information flows–and they know it.  Since that isn’t very likely to happen, we need to be especially vigilant when politicians get all fired up over issues that restrict freedom of speech and access to information.

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The Brain is a Muscle, too: Lifting too Little Isn’t Effective or Interesting

A recent report says that while cardiovascular strength adds up, lifting weights that are too light doesn’t do much to build muscle. It is important to tax the muscles to get them to respond. The same is true in learning. If you don’t have to try, you won’t get much result. Setting and measuring progress toward goals and targets–in life, education, and fitness training–are the way to build strength and ability.

We all know that to achieve learning you must have engagement. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high), the architect of the concept of flow and one of the fathers of Positive Psychology, studies engagement as an element of flow. People (of all ages) enter a flow state when they are fully absorbed in an activity which challenges their abilities so that they are using their skills to the utmost (i.e. building brain muscles). The result is complete involvement, optimal performance and achievement, and great satisfaction. The next time you see your kid fully absorbed in a video game, ask yourself what is creating the engagement before you pull the plug.

One of our goals at the Media Psychology Research Center in our collaboration with Fablevision is to bridge the gap between positive psychology, new technologies, and education in the trenches. There are extraordinary opportunities to engage kids using technology but we need to start with educating the teachers. If teachers are not trained to integrate and appreciate what technology has to offer, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the technological opportunities are, they won’t get used. According to Plato Learning and Education World, only one-third of teachers report that they feel prepared to use computers for classroom instruction, and 77% report spending 32 or fewer hours on technology-related professional development activities. Anecdotally, my daughter Katie, who graduated from Columbia’s Teachers College was surprised at how few of her peers were interested or able to integrate technology in the classroom. I had assumed that the new generation of teachers would be both technologically savvy and chomping at the bit. Thus, if you can extrapolate individual experience, there is still a lot of work to be done. The good news is that there is huge potential on the upside once new learning models involving technology get in the system.