Sara was a new intern in the California office of Major Management Consultancy (MMC, a pseudonym). She sat at a conference table along with several of her new colleagues waiting for a partner to arrive—the first one she would meet at the firm. A student from one of Europe’s best business schools, Sara had numerous accolades, high-powered mentors, and a previous internship in MMC’s Swedish office.
But when the partner, a man in his fifties, finally did enter, the first thing he did was order his new intern to wait outside. Why?
“Because I’m a hierarchical son-of-a-bitch!” he said.
This happened again and again during Sara’s tenure at MMC. Throughout her internship, Sara told us she was consistently shut out of meetings, wasted company time waiting for approval from superiors for the simplest tasks, and was left with little sense of agency or buy-in.
Sara isn’t alone. We spent a year interviewing over one hundred students and young professionals from five different countries about their views on working and living, and the tenuous balance between the two. The interviews were conducted as a project of the Lattice Group, a non-profit organization that we founded in 2007 in order to research and raise awareness about work-life issues among young people. Our Generation Y subjects, born roughly 1979-1990, spoke candidly about hopes and fears, on the job and off. No matter where we met them—in Madrid, Paris, Moscow, Stockholm, or New York—we discovered that members of Gen Y routinely find themselves managed by bosses accustomed to more vertical structures.
Too often, this leaves Gen Y:ers without the interaction and sense of efficacy they crave. According to a 2007 study conducted by Robert Half International for Yahoo!, Gen Y:ers “seek managers who are willing to let them figure out their own strategies for getting the job done while at the same time being approachable and available to provide advice, assistance and support.” According to their survey, only 10 percent of Gen Y:ers would be comfortable with communicating once a week with their bosses—they prefer to have daily contact with their superiors.
Sara’s alienating experience—shared by many of her contemporaries—had real consequences. Though Sara was expected to sign with the company upon graduation, she decided not to pursue a full-time position at MMC. Sara got the experience and the line on her resume, but MMC lost the money it spent training her and the creative input she could have brought to the meetings from which she was excluded. In the long run, it’s the partner, and not the likes of Sara, who loses in this equation. Being “a hierarchical son-of-a-bitch” sounds tough, but he and his company lost money as well as new talent.
So what does Gen Y want? And how can companies provide it?
Why Gen Y Likes It Flat
The attitudes Gen Y brings to work have been shaped by a unique set of technological and economic changes. As globalization analysts keep telling us, a country’s historical and geographical borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant—and workers can no longer count on lifelong employment. Gen Y knows this. In fact, they welcome it.
Yet, the divide between the corner office and the cubicles of lower-level employees is still huge. The partner at MMC wanted Sara to know her place—the lowest rung of the corporate ladder. But his extreme embrace of hierarchy turned Sara off to the company and put her in a position where she was of little service to what ought to be his highest objective: the betterment of the organization.
Many of the Gen Y:ers we interviewed had internship experiences with large corporations while in college, and so have tested out the traditional vertically hierarchical structure. Most of them say that they don’t want to work that way in their own futures. We were told over and over again that they want to feel as though they are having an impact with the work they do. No matter how junior, they want to feel as though what they do bears significance, that they and what they do has a potential to influence the organization and the final product for which they are working.
These sentiments are echoed in the words of Rachel, a twenty-two year old college senior we interviewed only days before her graduation from a competitive liberal arts college in the Northeast. “I think corporations can do a lot to attract the independent, creative-minded people,” she told us. “By giving them jobs where they are able to do things on their own. Really start up new ventures, take risks on their own. I think that’s what people like – to take risks. And to see something put into action because of their idea, their motivations.”
Hierarchy works when the organization can credibly promise that talented interns and junior workers can take initiative and be able to climb the ladder of success. In a changing work culture compacted by a climate of economic instability—where companies can’t promise people like Sara a lifelong career-path, or at the very least convince Sara that she will learn and grow if she decides to sign on with the company for a few years—it makes sense for her to simply move on to greener pastures.
Michael, 24, a fiercely ambitious engineer at a New York firm, says that he has raised eyebrows at the office by stepping out of the hierarchical line. He often initiated conversations with partners, and refused to work overtime when there was no work to be done. (“Facetime” was so important, he claimed, that many employees stayed in the office until midnight even if they didn’t have anything to do, a practice he despised.) Fortunately for him, Michael kept being assigned to the best projects because, no matter his defiance of what he saw as pointless company policy, his performance spoke for itself.
Still, he wasn’t happy—and neither, he claimed, were his peers. He felt that the hierarchical company culture—where people are grouped into discrete levels based on seniority, rather than being seen as an individual with specific skill-sets— produced unnecessary hurdles for collaboration, personal promotion, and growth. Michael said he expects a veritable “exodus” of junior level workers fed up with a stifling climb up a ladder that won’t lead where it once did, anyway.
Why Gen Y Shares
What’s more, Generation Y is a constantly communicating generation. When we read the newspaper—online, of course—we post comments. We copy the link and email it to our friends, or post it to one of the many sharing devices, like Digg, or del.i.cious, so that a larger community might find them. If the story really gets to us, we may sum it up in a tweet. It is all about sharing information. The habit of posting photos to social networking sites has even transformed our way of experiencing life—unless we share our experiences with our virtual community, it is as though they haven’t fully been experienced.
We communicate with dozens, if not hundreds, of acquaintances everyday on social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace. And it is not just time wasted. These social interactions often lead to work-related discussions, recommendations, and grumblings. Information is spread via our informal social networks in such a way that when we need a certain bit of information, we often know exactly where to turn. The challenge is to translate these new habits of constant communication, of informal sharing of information and experiences, into new and better ways of working.
Just as they do in our private lives, human networks flourish spontaneously in professional settings. It’s pretty simple: sharing ideas and working together is often the best way to get things done, even if it’s not in the company manual. Workers form networks big and small all the time. Today, these networks are even easier to maintain and extend thanks to technology wonders like BlackBerries, Gmail chat, and Skype. The problem is that in strict vertical hierarchies, individuals with authority may not even know about these informal networks and the vast pockets of information within them.
In a study of informal networks at companies, McKinsey consultants were shocked to discover how little information and knowledge flows through official hierarchical structures and how much flows through informal networks. They found that the formal structure of companies—think closed-door meetings based on hierarchy—couldn’t explain how most of the real day-to-day work got done. The authors’ conclusion: “It’s unfortunate, at a time when the ability to create value increasingly depends on the ideas and intangibles of talented workers, that corporate leaders don’t do far more to harness the power of informal networks.”
That’s an easy enough complaint. But how does a company (or nonprofit organization) harness the power of informal networks? How do we embrace a flat workplace? Those are the questions we address in our next entry, “How Gen Y will Flatten the World.”
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