THE BLOG
09/26/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

Are You In Love With the Flatlands?

Flatland: Land with no hills, valleys or mountains; an imagined land existing in only two dimensions

In my work with a nonprofit organization many years ago, I had a mentor who had a favorite saying: "Their problem is, they're in love with the flatlands." What he meant was that there is a tendency in people to accept the status quo, to resist any force that is disruptive or unsettling. The unfortunate consequence of this mindset is that too many people are willing to pull others down to their level of thinking, because that is where they're most comfortable. The challenge for business leaders and educators is to foster an environment where we build up rather than tear down.

When there is a big disruption in a field or industry, like the one we see now in higher education, you have two choices. You can adapt and thrive, or you can be in love with the flatlands. It is a natural human response to greet change with fear and anxiety. It's much easier to sit back and critique ideas or punch holes in new approaches than it is to embrace the change and realize that there is almost always a way to combine old ways with fresh approaches that embrace new ways of thinking.

You need only scan business headlines over the past year to see tensions bubble up between forward-thinkers and flatlanders. Will your workplace be a culture that allows telecommuting, or will you embrace the position of Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, whose decision to squelch remote working arrangements rankled many in her organization and beyond? In spite of the controversy, her approach is certainly not without merit. Mayer herself noted the compromise when she acknowledged that while people are more productive when they're alone, they're more collaborative and innovative when they're together. For Mayer, it came down to value judgment: a choice between productivity and innovation. I'm not alone in thinking there must be a better way, a third way that combines the best of both approaches.

Leaders in business and education have to ask the question: How do we engage? Technology offers unprecedented access, but the ability to create intimate, emotional bonds is still at the heart of every effective organization. There was a time that bonding took place around a water cooler. Now we email, chat, tweet or Skype. The platforms change, but the basic human need for connection and intimacy never changes. How do we meet those needs without feeling confined to 140 characters? I have to believe the answer is to find better ways to leverage the platforms while never losing sight of the fact that we are all humans in need of connection and intimacy.

The generational differences in American workers and in academia give rise to some of the most troubling stereotypes and intimacy gaps. The flatlander from an older generation carries his prejudices into every meeting and project, dismissing a younger employee for not having the experience or knowledge to get the work done. The millennial flatlander harbors assumptions just as damaging when she assumes an older worker is a dinosaur, technologically hopeless, or has nothing new to contribute. It's easy to marginalize and dismiss the other side when you're in love with the flatlands. A better approach -- an aspirational approach -- involves accepting the disruption and discomfort of change. The only way to move forward is to begin to understand that the topography is changing. Every organization will experience hills, valleys and mountains. We have a choice: Is it an "either/or" or a "yes/and" proposition?

From a "yes/and" vantage point, we accept the disruption, and we begin to see the value inherent in a rocky landscape. In higher education, we see this play out when students consider online education. With adult learners, the flexibility of online education offers unprecedented access to training that meets them where they are in their lives and careers. The value of online education becomes unimpeachable when we are able to accept that we have created a third way to reach our goal. The idea that you either go the traditional route of a brick-and-mortar classroom or meander through online coursework untethered by human connection is simply a false choice. In business, it's time to accept that a collaborative space doesn't require a physical location. AT&T introduced the first picture phone at the 1960 world's fair; we need to accept that more than 50 years later, video conferencing, email, instant messaging an d Skype offer ample opportunities to work together from a distance. Think about it: It is certainly possible to be in the same room with someone and feel little connection whatsoever, yet you can experience a powerful, spirited connection with someone thousands of miles away. The friendships kindled and rekindled over social media are proof of this phenomenon. Critics of the exciting advances in business and higher education enabled by digital connectedness are clinging to outdated ideas simply because they hold the promise of comfort and ease. It's time to leave comfort to the flatlanders. Saying "yes, and" means keeping what works, adapting in the face of exhilarating change, and thriving in our highly connected workplaces and virtual classrooms.

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