During a recent training class I conducted for a client in Seattle, a Millennial employee vented to me that what she heard most often from older workers was “No, we can’t do it.” She was frustrated by their apparent lack of openness to new ideas, particularly in one situation in which her proposed solution to an existing problem was initially shot down in this manner but was later adopted after further discussion within the department. This is an all-to-common scenario in which the initial “no” from older workers is not so much a rejection of an idea but a rejection of how a younger worker has presented it. Such conflict arises not only from differences in age but from differences in tenure, too: a recent hire might enter a workplace ready to turn the system around, only to have his or her ideas shot down by long-term employees who’ve been at the company for years.
Seasoned employees need to be more open to ideas and appreciate the enthusiasm that young employees and new hires bring to the table instead of outright rejecting their suggestions (even if those ideas have been tried before). Because they’re new to the workforce, everything is still exciting to them. Remember feeling fresh and being eager to contribute when you first joined the workforce or your organization? Chances are you often came up with lots of great new ideas—just as Millennials do today.
Sometimes all that’s needed to reveal a solution to an existing problem is a new perspective and some perseverance. Just because an idea has already been explored doesn’t mean all possible approaches have been exhausted. Consider the example of Thomas Edison, who famously quipped, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up” just a few years before he finally succeeded (after several hundred—or, by some accounts, several thousand—failed attempts) in creating a long-lasting lightbulb.
When a younger worker expresses an idea that has already been explored, instead of dismissing the proposal with a “Been there, done that” response, the more seasoned employee should instead try to analyze it in light of past approaches. Discussing prior efforts, sharing documentation of them (such as reports and e-mail), and pointing the younger employee to those who’ve worked on the problem before can yield fresh perspectives that might enable the office’s new blood to see a way around obstacles that stymied others in the past. After all, if an idea was great when it was first brought it up, why not help someone else finally figure out a way to achieve that goal? The worst that can happen is the idea fails again. But in the best-case scenario, everyone involved—both the new employee and the veteran—comes out smelling like roses.
By not killing ideas immediately and instead providing support for them, you can encourage younger workers to keep coming up with those new ideas—and even mistakes can often lead to completely new solutions. For example, Post-its were developed when a 3M chemist’s attempts to create a super-strong adhesive resulted instead in the weaker yet reusable glue that eventually allowed those little yellow rectangles to become ubiquitous in the office. Remember the big picture, in which the company’s success is the end goal. Fostering new ideas and new strategies for achieving that goal will help ensure the organization’s longevity for years to come.
If you hear your workers respond, “That can’t be done” right off the bat when hearing a new employee’s ideas, step in and encourage an open dialogue that transforms “That can’t be done” into “That might be possible—but be prepared to encounter the following roadblocks with this approach.” You’ll not only better equip everyone for success but also come across as an approachable, sensible leader who inspires employees. Of course, not every idea can be pursued (for lack of resources, financing, or staffing, among other reasons). But when you must reject a younger employee’s proposal, be sure to explain clearly the reasoning behind the decision so that person can be better prepared the next time he or she presents an idea.
Appreciating the contributions of youth (and new hires) will go a long way in elevating your management style to that of leadership status. Younger workers don’t have a monopoly on making valuable contributions to the workplace though—older generations have plenty to offer, too! Don’t miss my next post, which will cover how to manage employees who are older than their colleagues (and sometimes their managers, too!).
(Excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons Inc., from Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality, by Valerie M. Grubb. Copyright© 2017 by Valerie M. Grubb. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.