Older managers wonder why the youngest employees in their offices, the Millenials, seem so hungry for recognition. They wonder why these new people don’t just learn a little patience, and wait until they are older to start taking credit for stuff.
It brings up a good point: Who deserves credit for the things that happen at work? In their book “Egonomics,” David Marcum and Steven Smith ask, “Who invented the assembly line?” People say Henry Ford. Who invented the telephone? Alexander Graham Bell. Who made flight possible? The Wright Brothers.
But Marcum and Smith point out that actually, brilliant innovations rarely spring from solo efforts. The assembly line wasn’t really Ford’s idea. It started with Eli Whitney’s innovative approach to manufacturing in 1799, which was based on ideas written about by political economist Adam Smith. Then in 1901, Ransom Eli Olds patented the first assembly line. And Ford’s version of the idea was built on the efforts of big teams of company engineers. According to Marcum and Smith, innovation comes from repeated trial and error, not just one single event, idea, or person.
And yet we give so much credit to one name. No matter how big the team that produced the innovation, we tend to focus all the credit on its leader. We worship Jack Welch, when he was just one man standing on the shoulders of thousands of brilliant people. We worship Henry Ford, when he was just tweaking an idea that other people had been developing for over a hundred years. We think of them as gods, and we wish that we, too, could be like them. It’s strange that in a business world that puts so much emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, we still spend so much time celebrating the idea of the solo innovator.
The Millenials in your office have grown up on these solo innovator stories, too. But they’ve also grown up with the Internet, and so they see examples every day of “dispersed recognition.” Take selling music on the Internet, for example. Millenials saw dozens of different parties experimenting with different models, all of them failing, until one of them finally got it right. They see social media evolving before their very eyes, with dozens of different players coming and going, until a few of them finally start getting it right. They also know that the moment someone starts to get it right, the needs change, and the cycle of innovation starts again. And they don’t have to study a hundred years of industrial history to see this happen. They see the cycle taking place before their very eyes, sometimes in the space of just a few years.
So the Millenials know, perhaps better than anyone else, that great achievements are not the work of a single person. They know there is never just one solo innovator.
Still, their older managers say, they should know they just need to wait their turn. The recognition will be forthcoming later, after they’ve paid their dues a bit. But these older managers need to think back to their own younger years, when they were just starting out. They were probably just as hungry for recognition. After all, Kali H. Trzesniewski, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, has shown that there have been very few changes in the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of youth over the last 30 years.
All humans want acceptance and recognition. Every one of us who works hard and produces results wants to see his work recognized. Think about how you feel when someone else takes credit for something you think should have your name on it. Your Millenial employees are no different. Remember that brilliant innovations don’t come from solo efforts, and that your Millenials probably understand this better than anyone else in the office. So be generous in how you spread the recognition around, and watch as your young employees return the favor by putting their best and most creative energies to work for your company.