Asking for Help: A Generational Divide?

You know that old stereotype that says men will never stop to ask for directions? I’d like to posit another theory: Young people in the workplace may be less likely to ask for help than their older colleagues.

I was talking the other day with a friend who mentioned that two of her co-workers share what she perceives as a common short-coming: If they have a technology question, they don’t ask for help. They can get completely stalled by a problem and just sit alone at their desks for hours trying to work it out by themselves.

“Why don’t they ask for help?” she wondered. Why not call IT, or contact the software company’s customer support staff? Well, it turns out that both of these colleagues are younger than my friend. Both are, in fact, digital natives.

“Get used to it,” I told her.

How do digital natives compare with older workers?
I don’t have hard data to back up this theory, but I think digital natives are less likely to ask for help than those of us who grew up without video games.

Think about it: These are people who generally learned to master video games through trial and error — or didn’t master them at all. I don’t mean that they never asked a friend for help; but in general, their games encouraged them to keep trying, keep plugging away until they found the right way. Made a mistake? No problem. You’re dead, but you’ve got another life. Just start again from the beginning.

Need more evidence? Come look in my teenager’s closet. There’s a storage bin filled to the brim with the instruction manuals we got with every video game we ever bought. They’ve never been opened. Kids get new games, pop them in the gaming system and start playing. The exploration and discovery are part of the experience.

That’s got to carry over to other parts of their lives. And once they get into the workforce, I think it probably makes them less likely to call their support desk or use a vendor’s customer service help line. I also think it affects the way they search for information online. I find digital natives much less likely than older people to page through search results looking for a website they know and trust, and much more likely to start clicking through to different websites to see where they find useful advice. And I honestly don’t know the last time I saw someone in their 20s go to browser bookmarks to find a website.

Challenges for managers and employers
I don’t think these are bad habits, just different. I think they’re things that managers should keep in mind as their organizations hire more young employees. We might need to find new strategies for encouraging workers to get help when they need it, and we might need to think of new ways to make “help” resources available in a way that’s more natural for digital natives to use.

What do you think? Whether you’re a Baby Boomer or Millennial, Gen X or Gen Y, I’d like to know if you’ve noticed generational differences between digital natives and their older colleagues.

2 thoughts on “Asking for Help: A Generational Divide?

  1. Being one of the “youngsters” of our company, I would agree with this. It’s not that I don’t LIKE to ask for help, I just know that if I figure out something for myself once, that means I won’t have to bother anyone about it in the future. I used to work closely with IT and I know from experience that given their workload, they tend to just go and head and find the solution without explaining to you what it is. It’s frustrating to my curiosity and need-to-learn-everything mentality. Which I believe goes back to directly what you’re saying – I grew up with video games and a natural knack for taking electronic devices apart (and most of the time being successful at putting them back together).

    Communication is something I’m working on though. And asking for help and for input on projects. I’m so used to just plugging ahead and working on my own and in an independent environment from past work, that I forget that I now have the opportunity to ask for feedback constantly (and in a place that it’s encouraged on a daily basis). I hope others comment on this with ideas on how to encourage folks to ask for help when they need it (and even when they don’t).

    Great post Kim! :D

    • I don’t necessarily think this is a bad trait at all. You’re right that if you figure something out for yourself, you’re more likely to learn something. So there’s definitely value in that approach. There’s a balance to find between that self-taught learning and getting an answer faster.

      I think there’s a challenge here for both generations. Maybe younger folks can or should look for ways to use all the resources available to them; but I think there’s a burden on managers to help facilitate that, to find ways to make resources more user-friendly to digital natives — and also to see the value in the self-taught approach. Would video tutorials be a better approach than written help-desk documentation in some instances, for example? I’d welcome suggestions along those lines as well.

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