Question of the week
What can teenagers teach leaders about learning and change?
MARCH 24, 2017

As every parent knows,  teenagers can be… uhm… challenging. Teenagers are hormone-filled, angst-ridden, semi-autonomous adults who often have a respect-resentment issue towards authority. The hormone part aside, this pretty much describes your average working in an organization or industry undergoing significant disruption or change. For a teenager, their anxiety and fear stem from an uncertainty of who they are in this world. For an employee in disruptive times, there is often a similar crisis of identity: suddenly, they are asked to be different (more innovative, proactive or customer-centric), and behave in ways that are new and uncomfortable, even while faced with the possibility that they will lose their job.

“Employees are in an identity crisis, asked to be different and behave in new ways.”

For leaders, this is a problematic mix when trying to successfully embed change in their organization. As the “parents” in this analogy, good leaders wish the best for their teenagers employees – they want them to thrive and learn to navigate an uncertain world. The more enabled people are, the more innovative they tend to be, the more results-oriented they are, and the more likely they are to collaborate. All of these are qualities that organizations faced with change desperately want and need.

“Parents are often the last people that teenagers listen to.”

The problem is, parents are often the last people that teenagers listen to. This is not just a parental gripe; it has been borne out in study after study. And it is perfectly natural. Not just for teenagers but for all of us. We learn best and identify most easily with those that are most like us: our peers. Our peers are ‘people like us’, and we look to them for acceptance, belonging and guidance. So for an organization interested in implementing change (which requires people to actually behave differently: be more innovative, collaborate and be more customer-centric), the single most effective way of making this happen is by employing the natural dynamic of peer-to-peer learning.

“Peer-to-peer learning feels uncomfortable for both leaders and parents.”
However, a true peer-to-peer approach is often uncomfortable for organizations because it is a bottom-up process. This requires a relaxation of control and an openness for solutions to emerge organically… two things that traditional organizations are not used to. And indeed, with many of our clients we see an understandable contraction on the part of leaders and management once the process gets started… like a parent who tells their teenage son or daughter to take responsibility for something, but then is not comfortable with the possibly novel solution their son or daughter comes up with. It’s time to recognize that it is not the 1950’s anymore (many organizations are still basically run like it is). Father doesn’t necessarily know best and “laying down the law” in the form of punitive rules is likely to be met with resistance, whether overt or passive aggressive. Providing guidance but ceding control is the only way to create a mature, cooperative and creative family business that is able to meet and master a rapidly changing world.
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