Gen Y’s at Work: Two Common Mistakes

There are two frequent complaints about younger workers (Gen Ys or Millenials) from their older managers:

  1. They share everything online
  2. They treat everyone as equals, and expect to be listened to just as equally

As young people enter the workplace, they may find some of their ideals … not so ideal. The reality of companies and the people who work in them is that not everything should be shared, and people don’t always want to be seen as equal. (Photo Credit: Photostock)

Despite flatter organizations and the encouragement of team collaboration, hierarchies still dominate. To not recognize the political landscape in an organizations is to navigate blindly, vulnerable to saying the right thing to the wrong people at the wrong time.

An interesting take on the new generation at work is given by Andrew McAfee, author of an HBR blog post: Two Common Mistakes of Millennials at Work. Andrew McAfee is principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Enterprise 2.0.

“One of the knocks against Generation Y is that they’ve been encouraged to believe that everything they say and think is interesting, and should be aired and shared. This is simply not true for anyone.

…Most if not all of the digital communities where Gen Y has spent time are highly egalitarian. They’re indifferent to pre-existing hierarchies and credentials, and sometimes even hostile to them.

…All this can make a strong case to Gen Yers that hierarchy and credentialism are passé as concepts, or should be. So when they show up after graduation at their first employer, some of them start acting this way.

They assume that their contributions and opinions will be as sought after and valued as anyone else’s. They feel free to voice their thoughts on topics both related and unrelated to their job descriptions.

This is a really bad idea, for two main reasons. First, it ignores the fact that the newest workers might not be the most knowledgeable on the company’s core topics, and that they’d be better served at the start of their careers by listening and learning, rather than broadcasting what they already (think they) know.

Second, many people in the organization’s existing hierarchy are kind of fond of it. They’re fond, in fact, of the entire notion of hierarchy, and of the related idea that employees should respect their places within it. These people don’t really desire more egalitarianism.

In light of the above, I’ve got two pieces of advice for Gen Y as it enters the workforce. I’ll convey them using the words of much wiser men.

First, Voltaire on digital oversharing: “The secret of being a bore is to say everything.” A good ground rule, I believe, is to primarily use an enterprise’s 2.0 platforms to share information that passes a simple test: would a coworker I’ve never met find this professionally interesting?

Second, Goethe on the difference between how people in companies should act, and how they actually do: “A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”

The advice here for new Gen Y workers is to understand the political and organizational lay of the land before engaging in egalitarian online interactions and fearless truth telling. You may well decide that you’ll take the consequences, but you should first be aware of what the consequences are. Confusion here is not likely to go unpunished.

What do you think about these two common mistakes Gen Y’s make at work? True? Biased? Only occasionally true? Exaggerated? I’d love to hear your perspectives on these two common errors. Maybe you can think of others?

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