Every organization has a hierarchy, both on the staff side and on the member/volunteer side. And while the business world has been talking about “flattening” organizations for some time now, the truth is hierarchies are actually a good thing, so we shouldn’t try to get rid of them.
But as the Millennials become a larger and larger segment of our membership, we should prepare ourselves for some shifts in how our hierarchies work. One of the biggest factors that shaped the Millennial generation as they were growing up was the way we elevated the status of children in society during that time.
A lot of pundits will use this as an excuse to bash the Millennials--they are spoiled, they are entitled, everyone gets a trophy, etc. All that is a waste of time. The Millennials were not spoiled. They simply became accustomed to having frequent and immediate access to people higher than them in the hierarchy (adults). And now that they are in the workforce (and participating as members in our associations), they expect to move in the same way--accessing all the levels of the hierarchy quickly and easily.
Except they can’t. Inside our organizations, we keep hierarchy levels separate. The senior management team meets, but rarely tells anyone else what they actually talk about. Bosses may declare they have an “open door” policy, but believe me, the subtle cues they give to staff make it clear you shouldn’t bother the boss unless it’s something really important, so that open door rarely gets used.
And within your membership, there are also clear hierarchies, even if they are less formal or structured. There is usually a group of insiders that have moved their way up the volunteer hierarchy, and they are frequently as insular as the senior management team, which is going to be very frustrating to Millennials.
What’s interesting is we have the perfect technology in place to solve our hierarchy problems--our online communities. Yet I have not seen a single association who has been successful in leveraging the power of online community to actually facilitate more and better interactions across hierarchy lines. We may be excited about that potential, but I don’t see it happening. Outside of some very high-level information sharing, the insiders are still talking to the insiders, and the outsiders are left out.
We need to start being proactive about using our communities to enable more access across hierarchy lines. The hierarchy won’t go away, but access could be improved. Let’s start naming this and working on it. Let’s create some communication vehicles that explicitly address this.
This post is part of an ongoing series about Millennials and Online Community. Join us in the conversation! Am I wrong? Are you using your community to provide ways to share information across internal hierarchies?