Organizational experts, management profs and business pundits have been wringing their hands over how to deal with millennials at work for over a decade now. Meanwhile, work life goes on as usual. Corporate America’s bigger and more profitable than ever. Frogs haven’t rained down from the sky. What happened to the millennial crisis?
Nothing. Because the crisis never existed. Generations have conflicted at work for, well, for generations. This is nothing new.
Experienced bosses will always see the world differently because they have something up-and-comers don’t have: experience. They know things. They know how to motivate people. They know how to work the system and get things done. And most important, they know what they don’t know.
Their less experienced employees also see things differently. They have no preconceived notions of how an organization should be run or how their careers should progress. They lack constraints. They don’t know what they don’t know. They see no reason why things should have to be the way they are.
And when they run up against what they perceive to be a status quo brick wall, they simply move onward and upward. That’s how it’s always been.
As a young engineer I had an insatiable desire for responsibility, accomplishment, and recognition. I wanted to move up, and fast. I wanted to do things my way on my schedule. The relationship was symbiotic until I felt that wasn’t happening fast enough, that the company’s processes and structure were simply too inflexible to meet my needs.
That was back in the dark ages when corporations had not yet become the lean, mean competitive machines they are today. Modern companies have fewer layers of management, decisions are made at lower levels and there is a great deal more flexibility. And yet, here we are, in a perceived generational crisis. Again.
Clearly this is about experience and age, not specific generational cohorts.
It is the job of experienced leaders to develop cultures and processes to enable stable, sustainable growth. Likewise, it’s the job of young up-and-comers to challenge the status quo and, if they can’t get what they want, to move on in search of something that suits them better.
That natural tension has to exist because no organization is infinitely elastic or adaptable. Without structure and processes, companies will eventually devolve into chaos and falter. In theory, leaders should test their own status quo and be open to new ideas. In practice, that will always happen more slowly than young upstarts would like.
For consistent growth, organizations must strike a balance between disruption and stability. Therein lies the rub, and the origin of a recurring conflict that gives rise to very specific roles:
For up-and-comers, your role is to challenge the boundaries and test the limits. And when your needs aren’t being met, to move on and carve your own path. But don’t expect management to cater to you wherever you go. That’s not your role or theirs. They have to find a balance. You don’t … at least not yet.
As for executives and business leaders, your role is to never forget that you were once that brash young upstart who succeeded by taking risks and pushing the envelope. And that, the second you think you’ve got the magic formula to success and all you have to do is turn the crank, that’s when you become the status quo.
Image credit 2-Dog-Farm via Flickr
A version of this originally appeared at Entrepreneur.com.