Every business has a challenge ahead. As the Millennial workforce grows in size and acclimates into the world of Gen X and Baby Boomers, you can expect to see a big upset in company culture. In fact, the entire way your business operates is about to change dramatically.
If you’ve been in the working world for more than 15 years, you probably buy into a hierarchical view of the world, according to Seth Mattison, who presented at NSCA‘s Business and Leadership Conference in a session called “New Ways to Work and Connect in a New World.”
The hierarchical mindset is another way of talking about the “top-down” mentality that is pervasive not only within business but in our government, religious institutions and even social order. Imagine a simple organizational chart. There are people on top, people in the middle and people on the bottom. Those on the bottom are often said to have to “do their time” and “work their way up.” These idioms are so prevalent for a reason, Mattison said. It’s been this way for a long time.
“Within this environment, there are unwritten rules,” said Mattison. “These rules are understood as the recipe for success.”
You know the rules. In the office, they are mindsets such as, “Keep your head down, keep your mouth shut, work your tail off, and you will work your way to the top.” Others Mattison mentioned include “Don’t tell anyone what you know,” “Top and bottom don’t mix,” and “Never go above your boss’s head.”
The younger you are, the less you know about these rules, said Mattison. And in the last 20 to 30 years, as a new generation grew into adulthood, something shifted.
“Starting in the 1980s, the family org chart was flattened,” said Mattison. “People having children at that time said to themselves, ‘When I have kids I want to do it differently; I want to have a discussion with my kids when they do something wrong, not just punish them.’ So children were brought up with more say in things than they used to have.
“In addition, since these kids grew up on technology, we now have a whole generation of youth that has been the chief technology officer in their homes for the last decade,” added Mattison. The crowd laughed in understanding. “The whole generation has been teaching adults for years. So now, suddenly authority figures are seen as peers.”
The second influencing factor of this shift in thinking was the unlocking of the Internet. Millennials are quite literally coming of age in the network. This has made way for a new set of unwritten rules.
The New Rules
“Millennials have grown up with unprecedented access to information and people across long distances and boundaries,” said Mattison. “This is the era of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. People now have elevated expectations for truth and transparency from everyone.”
This shows up in the data. 75 percent of people don’t trust managers who don’t share information about the business, according to Mattison. Before, the rule was “No news is good news.” Now people would rather hear bad news than be kept in the dark. Why? Because if they hear nothing, they start asking questions and imagining the worst.
Also, today anyone can bring an idea forward that can impact the entire world. The Internet doesn’t care if you are 16 or 76, rich or poor, tall or short, a man or a woman. We saw this phenomenon in 2011 with the Arab Spring: the youth in a culture sparked a revolution and created change in a society that had never seen that before and never thought it possible.
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Mattison called this the “youthification of influence.” Just 20 years ago if you looked at a magazine like Time or Inc., it was mainly “old white dudes on the cover,” said Mattison. Now it seems every other issue features an influential young person on the cover, a person who doesn’t look all that different than the young employee you just hired.
So what happens? Millennials see this and think, if they can do that, I can come into your organization and make one little change, affect one policy or decision. So while you, the Baby Boomer, had to sit with your head down for seven or eight years, a young person might come into your company and immediately hope to affect change.
“These two worlds are essentially at battle with each other,” said Mattison. “I have not met a single leader who is not feeling the tension that exists between these two worlds. We are coming off 100 years of industrial revolution built on the back of the hierarchy and it is colliding head on with the world of the network.”
A Half-Changed World
“This is not about blowing up the hierarchy or saying we will live 100 percent in the world of the network,” explained Mattison. “This is about asking, what is going to serve you and your company?”
Business leaders no longer need to see themselves leading from the top of the hierarchy, but from the center of the network. It’s time to find the courage to invite a little freedom and flexibility into your organization.
“Give people guiderails and then back off,” suggested Mattison. “Give them space and freedom to bring new things to the table. If you don’t trust them to do that, it’s up to you to increase their capacity and capability so you can trust them.”
Let Go of One Unwritten Rule
Mattison challenged the audience to let go of one unwritten rule that remains from the previous era. It can be something as simple as, “When people are not at their desk, it means they’re not working.”
The reason is that there is a whole group of talent who has no clue about the unwritten rules you know. They are coming in fresh from the world of the network and have no idea about the hierarchical philosophy you understand. And you need that talent.
“The best organizations are finding a way to pull forward the best methods from both environments,” said Mattison. “Getting there is going to require more of us, but we need to learn because in today’s world, we need talent more than talent needs the company.
“That fact requires you to show up and win over the hearts and minds of your people every single day,” added Mattison. “You want them to feel invested and empowered instead of cogs in the machine, or you will lose them.”