Meg Wheatley is an expert author and speaker on the subjects of leadership and organizational development. In this video except from one of her presentations she shares with us a comical anecdote illustrating how generational differences are challenging our corporations today.

The story surrounds the auto industry. The Big 3 automakers were experiencing upwards of 20% absenteeism on any given day. Most of those not showing up for work were late teens to mid-twenties – Gen Yers. The automakers asked an expert to go figure out why this group felt that is was okay to arbitrarily schedule “time off.”

According to Wheatley, the expert uncovered four main reasons contributing to the attitude of the workers:

  1. They are self-indulgent
  2. They are seeking more balance between work and family
  3. They had witnessed how their parents were treated poorly by large corporations and did not want to fall into the same trap
  4. They are creative and choose to pursue outside interests in music, art, etc.

What was comical about the anecdote was how the “boys club” in the corner-offices chose to address the issue. The went all old school on the solution deciding that a good solid policy with clear cut punishments would curb the “unacceptable” behaviour. They also started to hire ex-military to supervisor positions to instill some needed discipline. Third, they created “Absentee Coordinator” positions whose role was to stand around with clipboards recording work activity, breaks, etc. All wrong.

Now, I’m a Gen Xer with Gen Y tendencies and the above makes me cringe. The response by management most likely led to an increase in absenteeism as opposed to a decrease.

In the video excerpt an audience member asked Dr. Wheatley what solution she would have proposed. She offered the team model adopted by Volvo. At Volvo 15-18 member teams build cars. If anyone needs time they need to negotiate with the team. This was a sensible offering considering the more creative and collaborative attitudes of the Generation Y.

In a previous post I noted Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers demand more progressively open environments. Our work ethic is not about winning or being right, it is about working to a set of values, working collaboratively and fully enjoying our work and with whom we work. We are not opposed to having our ideas challenged. Quite the opposite. When working with intelligent and creative peers, we excel and deliver much more than we ever could individually.

I’m challenged in understanding what makes people cling so tightly to their out-dated work attitudes and beliefs? If not only to reflect and question whether or not their work habits still are relevant in today’s global economy? I’m amazed by those in my generation and older who do not attempt to acclimate themselves to the world in which the next generations are being raised – who do not take the time to at least peak into MySpace or Flickr or Facebook or Twitter or the plethora of other Web 2.0 social networking worlds out there. Honestly, if we don’t try to understand our younger co-workers we are bound to repeat the same stubborn, old-school mistakes of those who came before us.