Sunday, February 20, 2011

Truth and Equality in the Workplace

A couple of posts ago I mention a post from HBR's Andrew McAfee about how the connected habits of Millennials are benefting organizations. Well, a week after that one, McAfee posted another, this one about what goes wrong when Millennials take their connected habits too far. It's worth a read. He identifies two problems.

The first is simple oversharing. I wrote before how narrating your work is a very smart strategy because it lets you be helpful to others, and also increases the chances that they can help you. But narrating your every opinion, emotion, lunch, happy hour, hangover, etc. on your company's emergent social software platforms is just narcissistic clutter.

We all know about this one. The jokes about all the mindless social networking of Millennials are legion (and based partly in fact). But it's McAfee's second problem that I find more interesting.

The second not-so-smart practice of a digital native is to act as if all employees are equals, and equally interested in airing the truth.

McAfee makes the case that Millennials who carelessly muscle their way forward pursuing truth and equality in the workplace invariably find themselves thwarted by an entrenched hierarchy populated by individuals of older generations who derive their power and influence from that hierarchy, and have no interest in granting equality to the younger arrivals and have a very different understanding of the truth of the organization. As I have summarized here, McAfee describes this in the language of generations, using Millennials as a kind of case study, but I think the dynamic is more universal than that. Any developed and self-perpetuating system will resist the arrival of new forces seeking to change it.

But what really fascinates me about McAfee's post is again the comments, where Millennials, Xers and Boomers duke it out, all seeking mastery for their own point of view. One early and anonymous commenter, Gen X Slacker, got 14 "likes" for this pithy reply to a Millennial seeking to defend the younger perspective:

What you say maybe true, but since you're a millennial, we don't care and find your know-it-all response lacking of experience and judgement.

Ouch. But, you know what? As I read more and more of these online debates, I find myself more and more troubled not by the idealism of the Millennials but by the cynicism of the Xers. It has passed, it seems to me, from the rebellious attitudes of our youth, where we accepted the reality of having to watch out for ourselves and adopted a grim determination for finding our own way in the world, to the cantakerous pessimism of middle age, where we've pretty much settled in to the system we thought we could change and have now decided to piss all over anyone who reminds us of what we once were.

That's where I think the anger stems from. Millennials want truth and equality in the workplace. Well, so did Xers when we were their age. We didn't get it, and the thought that Millennials might succeed where we failed is driving some of us crazy.

Photo source


Suzy said...

While I agree that we Xers drip with cynicism, I would argue that the reasons may be more mundane than resentment for millenials search for truth and equality. For me, its a simple matter of economics. I'm blocked from moving into leadership by Boomers who it seems (she says cynically) may nver retire and millennials who have made it clear that they are next in line. Being between a rock and overeager oversharers can make a generation cranky!

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks, Suzy. I'm not saying that Xers are cranky because of Millennials and their workplace aspirations, I'm trying to say that (some) Xers are cranky because their own aspirations have been stymied, and they don't like to see those aspirations in others.

David M. Patt, CAE said...

Maybe it's not crankiness but maturity. Every generation started out overly idealistic (especially Boomers), and mellowed out as they became more experienced and learned that compromise is a necessity, not a sell out.

Years from now, Millenials will seem cranky compared to the next emerging generations.

Eric Lanke said...

But are Xers mellowing out, David? Some of them undoubtedly are, but their inborn cynicism is shining through, making even the mellow ones seem cranky. And some--well, go read the comments to any HBR post about Millennials. They're downright hostile.

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