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Brian Huffman

Why It’s Smart to Listen to Your Gen Y Employees’ Overshare

If Mattel were employing millennials, Barbie might still be in charge

It’s no surprise that members of Generation Y can cause annoyance in the workplace when their behavior is at-odds with the established norm. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s wise to brush these young employees aside. In fact, in between Gen Y’s disregard for hierarchy and tendency toward overshare lies information that could make or break your company.

A strategic inflection point is a point of massive change for a company. “Sooner or later,”  Andrew S. Groves– author of Only the Paranoid Survive– says, “something fundamental in your business world will change.” It happens when the old way of doing things suddenly shifts to the new. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Unfortunately,  it can put big companies (like Blockbuster) out of business, and threaten many others (like Intel). These types of large-scale changes render environmental scanning systems (put in place to help predict environmental trends) useless.

Why strategic inflection points and blind spots are important: MGA Entertainment created their line of Bratz dolls after noting a trend: young girls wanted dolls that looked more like their hip, older sisters. Mattel’s Barbie doll lost a full fifth of her realm almost immediately because Mattel didn’t catch on quickly enough. And Mattel didn’t even see it coming. Bill Gates even holds “Think Weeks” at Microsoft where employees take time to focus on the bigger issues facing the company. The hope is to uncover developing trends that will catch Microsoft off-guard.

Perhaps the Titanic wouldn’t currently be at the bottom of the sea had those in charge of the ship realized they were at a strategic inflection point, argues Brian Huffman, an associate professor of management at the University of Wisconsin- River Falls. “The Titanic’s fate seems less unlikely when one considers that the most experienced of the vessel’s officers  had begun their careers when commercial ships were made of wood and powered by wind and sail.”

But you shouldn’t just pay attention to Gen Y because they aren’t “old fashioned.” You should pay attention because, Huffman and Groves argue, CEOs are nearly always the last to see these big changes coming; the little guys see it first. In fact, the higher you are in the organization’s management, the less likely you are to catch onto environment-changing trends. Reasons for this include blissful ignorance, an unwillingness for folks to tell you, and “inevitably incomplete and distorted data” which reaches upper management. The biggest reason is quite simply that these managers just don’t consider that these kinds of game-changers could arise. The key, Huffman argues, is to include lower level managers in important conversations regarding periphery, as they are often the first to catch onto these kinds of environmental trends.

Is Gen Y making “mistakes” or providing information that could save your company? Andrew McAfee recently wrote a Harvard Business Review blog post in which he calls to attention two common mistakes of millennials at work. The first is Gen Y’s tendency to overshare. The second is acting “as if all employees are equals, and equally interested in airing the truth.” But really, the biggest mistake would be to rid Generation Y of these characteristics.

In fact, Gen Y probably could have saved Mattel’s market share by performing the exact same “mistakes” that McAfee discusses (had they been in the workforce between 2001-2004). They would be talking about trends openly, and they wouldn’t have been afraid to tell the big guys.  It’s also in the spirit of spreading ideas despite hierarchical constraints and encouraging potential overshare that Gates holds true to his “Think Weeks” that help keep Microsoft moving.

If your organization is the Titanic and you have a few millennials on board, your much less likely to sink. That is, if you take a moment to listen to some of what we say in between comments on what we’re having for dinner and our superpower of choice…

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Millennials, Trends 3 Comments