Who’s the Boss


I have heard twice today, in two separate contexts, that younger people think bosses are bad. The first was during Rebbecca Jones’ talk on Organization 2.0. She said, “Young people are not comfortable in a command and control environment.” Basically, the younger generations do not like to be in a strict structure. In Jenny Levine’s talk on gaming, she said that the younger generations that grew up gaming (that would include me) have grown up thinking that facing the boss is bad. The Boss in a game is the bad guy at the end of the level that you have to beat to progress on. The first instance of this that I recall in my life was Super Mario Bros.

In a recent discussion with my old boss, we were discussing how she, only a handful of years older then I, thrives in a strict organizational structure while I feel stifled and unhappy. I think this is an issue that has not been discussed nearly enough in our conversations about organizational culture. We do talk about generational issues, but I have not heard the issue from this particular angle.

I do not think gaming is the only thing to blame for this “I do not want to be bossed” mentality. I think many people my age and younger simply want some flexibility and trust that traditional organizational culture can not offer. When I try to think of alternative strutures though, my mind does not come up with much. I am a product of the structure I hate.

I do know that it would definitely be flatter. There would be less red tape and there would be more trust. It would also be flexible, as Rebecca Jones was saying, like an amoeba. The organization could be changed easily and would not require years of thought, after which the new structure is outdated anyway.

–Jane, flexibility is key

9 thoughts on “Who’s the Boss

  • April 17, 2007 at 9:35 am

    It’s a challenge I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, since I’ve a director for seventeen years now (two organizations) — the key, I think, is to have enough organizational structure so that communication lines are clear and who is responsible for what is clear (who does performance evalutions, who sets the schedule, who do you call when you need to call in sick — that kind of thing), but then to essentially ignore the org chart when organizing projects, tasks, teams, etc. There’s a balance and it takes continual adjusting.

    Whenever we’re interviewing for a new faculty position, I always meet with the candidate for the last half hour and one of the things that we talk about is how comfortable they are with ambiguity. I try to explain that in my library, people have a lot of freedom to set their own direction but then have to be willing to take responsibility for that. And that what may feel like productive flexibility on one day may look a lot like frustrating chaos on another — so you’ve got to be comfortable with a high degree of ambiguity if you’re going to be happy working here.

    I think that part of what makes bosses hesitant is that they are ultimately responsible to their bosses for what goes wrong. The deal I make with the people in my library is that when things go well, you get the credit, and if something goes badly wrong, I take the heat. Sometimes that’s a scary thing, but after a dozen years of working here, I’ve got a group of people that have demonstrated time and time again that they deserve the trust I put in them. But building that level of trust into an organization can take a lot of time.

  • April 17, 2007 at 10:12 am

    I recently had this same conversation with my boss, who I would say is a generation before me. I don’t believe what you are discussing is a generational issue as much as it is a personality issue. I feel that I work better in what you call a “command and control environment.” When I know what my task is, who I am accountable to, and what my responsibilities are then it is easier for me to perform without having to worry about things outside my little world.

    In our world, it is very much like Apollo design versus Orion design. Back during Apollo many of those guys were from the military or similar organization. The major decisions came from the top and they trickled down and it worked well. But now, with Orion, it is trying to trickle up and it is just not working very efficiently. I feel a lot of it comes because many of the civil servants involved are more of an academic type and like to feel free to do the kind of work that is mostly a learning exercise (not a bad thing) instead of prioritizing and getting work done that helps meet objectives and deadlines created by the tight wallets imposed by Congress.

  • April 17, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Mr. R,
    I actually thought a lot about you as I wrote this post. I do think it is more personality, but you can draw some generational lines here.

    We are so very different. That is why we work.

  • April 17, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    Over the past 18 years or so I have thought a lot about organizational structure and its relationship to how work gets done. In my current POW there are a lot of projects, tasks, teams, etc. that ignore the org chart. But it always comes back to “who’s the boss” when someone is slacking or making errors. There are always “supervisory issues,” and if you aren’t involved in what the person is doing you can’t really evaluate them fairly.

    There is also a big difference in the way people approach their jobs. The generalization (not always justified, but often so) is that “professional” people are more comfortable with less structure, and the “support staff” or hourly workers want to know who their boss is and what that person wants them to do. They want things to be spelled out. Maybe it’s just the people I have worked with, but that’s what I have experienced.


  • April 18, 2007 at 7:12 am

    Our Emerging Leaders group (M) is addressing this as part of our “making the workplace more millenial friendly” task. Jenny’s quote might have come from John Beck’s _Got Game_ which presents an excellent review of generational changes that were (in part) brought about by interaction with games.

  • April 18, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    I agree with Jane and Mr Rochester (and I’m not even a Libra). I am not a very good employee in a hierarchy. I don’t much like being a boss or a peon. And I am a Boomer. I think that–for whatever reasons–there are more people like Michelle and me in the under 35 year olds and less like Mr Rochester and many of my fellow boomers.
    Yep, Jenny’s quote is from John Beck. He said as much at the OCLC Symposium a couple of years ago…video is still on our site…he referred to the “level bosses” which if I remember is what they’re called in Super Mario Bros.

  • April 20, 2007 at 11:00 am

    I’m getting in on this discussion way below the fold, but I had some thoughts. The boss analogy is very interesting. The two video games that come to mind the most on this subject are Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong Country. The “boss system” in each game is different.

    In SMB1, you face an incarnation of the main boss, King Bowser (aka Koopa), at the end of every level. The boss is more powerful and difficult to defeat at each level, and to succeed, you have to jump over him and take out the bridge you were both just standing on. Sounds easy… except he’s throwing fire, hammers, and his large size at you. As you defeat (and sometimes fail against) each version of the boss, you tend to pick up new strategies that help you to be better next time. It helps that the boss is more or less the same each time.

    Then you have DKC. There’s a much more structured hierarchy of bosses here. At the top you have King K. Rool. His presence has a huge bearing on the elements of the game throughout your journey, but you never have to face him until the very end. Unlike with King Bowser, his seconds-in-command are not clones. The world bosses are bigger, more powerful versions of the smaller minions you encounter throughout the levels. To beat the world bosses, you have to adapt the skills you used to defeat their smaller versions to the environment in which you find yourself in the battle.

    Looking at these two games, given their historical context, brings up yet another good point. One person’s protagonist (as hero) is another person’s antagonist, even if the antagonist, through the generations, changes roles (from villain to hero).

    I’d connect all of this to library management right now, but I have to keep the momentum of my work day moving.

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  • April 21, 2007 at 10:07 am

    I need to change the wording on that slide, because when I mean it in more of a cultural context than a structural one. If you’re not a gamer, you’re not aware of the terminology and the implications, so telling a gamer “because I’m the boss” isn’t a good thing to say, regardless of hierarchy issues. I think librarians need to be more aware of these kinds of contextual clues, which is why I highlight this point in my gaming presentations. It helps folks understand that there really are some communication gaps, so maybe there is something to the idea of cultural ones.

    And yes, the idea is from Beck, but I like being able to illustrate it more visibly with the game ads. 🙂

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