Would young professionals be more effective at work if they embraced traditional leadership structures?

Gen Y, as we all know, are digital natives who grew up connecting online. After all this exposure to tech-enabled networking, the conventional wisdom goes (though there is some evidence to the contrary), we all rock at building online connections and maintaining amorphous but valuable webs of relationships.

The comfort and skill young people display when building networks has contributed to impressive public movements such as the recent Occupy protests and even perhaps to some degree the recent democratic upheavals in parts of the Middle East. It might play a major part in the flattening of organizational structures at many young people-led startups. But does all this networking have a downside?

That’s the question best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell recently pondered when he spoke at HR industry conference SHRM Atlanta 2. As TLNT reports:

Millennials, [Gladwell] explained, are all about networks and social organizations rather than hierarchies when it comes to their default organizational model. It’s the difference between how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s versus how the recent Occupy movement was set up.

In Gladwell’s view, hierarchies are disciplined, centralized (generally with one person at the top and a clear strategy from the leadership team), and makes a distinction between people on the outside and the inside (that is, you need to actually decide to join in). The civil rights movement, as set up by Dr. King, was a classic hierarchy, Gladwell observed.

The Occupy movement, by contrast, was none of those things. It had no leader like King, no central ideology or strategy (like the non-violent, Gandhi-like strategy at the heart of the civil rights movement), and no real organization or discipline. And, it’s why so many Baby Boomers and people from the older generations, who have worked most of their lives under hierarchical structures, don’t get what the Occupy protesters and movement is all about.

“One form is not better than the other,” Gladwell noted. “They’re two different forms with very different sets of strengths and weaknesses.” And in his view, we need to use both hierarchies AND networks if we are really going to succeed now and in the future.

Is Gladwell on to something? Do Millennials fail to appreciate the value of traditional hierarchies?

There is some evidence that flat structures, when taken too far, are actually bad for productivity. Several recent studies have shown that some degree of a traditional leadership structure makes groups more able to perform, and pundit Tammy Erickson has studied how a lack of defined roles leads to distracting turf wars and time-consuming negotiations of roles and responsibilities within teams.

“Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood – in fact, when individuals feel their role is bounded in ways that allow them to do a significant portion of their work independently. Without such clarity, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task,” she wrote.

So what do you think? Does the allergy young people have to hierarchies lead them to be less effective in accomplishing difficult tasks than if they embraced traditional leadership structures?

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com and GigaOM.


  1. Life's Too Good

    Hey Jessica,

    you raise a really good point – and it makes me think 2 things:

    1 – The world is changing really really fast and we need to change with it – perhaps that includes leadership styles or styles of networking or plain and simple just the way we communicate.

    2 – Great leaders (whether legitimate, expert or any other type) are such because they know how to treat adults like adults – whatever position they are in, and expect the same regardless of hierarchy – plus they probably understand that good followership skills are just as important as good leadership skills.

    thanks for the interesting post,
    take care & best wishes,

  2. jrandom421

    Yes, they should. Why? Because, after all the changes and so on that are going on, they’re still here, and a major component in government and business. Ignore them at your peril. They aren’t going to disappear for at least 1-2 generations

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