A non-profit leader I know was presented with a letter from younger employees, demanding change to what they called racist and oppressive policies and norms.
The leader was shocked. Not just by the accusations and demands, but more by the antagonistic approach.
Why hadn’t they asked her and other members of the leadership team to speak with them about their concerns? She could have assured them that some of their issues were fixable, and explained the challenges with some of the others so that they could collaborate on solutions.
It hurt her that her team didn’t see her this way. She had been an advocate and organizer for mission-driven causes for her entire career.
How had she suddenly become “The Man”?
She wasn’t the only one. I’ve talked to several leaders who have faced internal revolt from younger employees since 2020.
For some it was outrage over systemic racism; for others, it was return-to-work expectations that provoked an unexpected backlash.
It’s the job of young people to push us. That’s how we make progress.
Each generation looks at the one before and decides, do they want to live that way? How could our world be better?
As a no-longer-young person myself, I have empathy for my peers in this position. It feels awful to be questioned about your commitment when you are used to being viewed as progressive.
But inclusive leadership requires humility. We may know a lot, but we don’t know everything.
A good first step is to remember that many of us behaved similarly when we were young.
Next step is to find ways to collaborate—to marry young people’s desire for change with the practical concerns of senior leadership, like keeping an organization solvent and focusing on mission.
The experience of older leaders can help to translate the vision of younger leaders into strategies to achieve a common goal.
Inclusion means everybody has something to offer—and everyone has to feel valued in order to offer what they have. We need to listen and engage, even if the ideas aren’t presented how we would like them to be.
It hasn’t been easy or comfortable for leaders who have given space for young employees’ voices. But when people feel heard, they can begin to listen.
The organizations that incorporate all the voices will be the most successful.