Motivating and encouraging Generation Why

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Albert Talamantez
  • 17th Communications Squadron
Why don't you ask HIM to do this? Why do we do that like this? Why can't I just do it my way? Why; why; why..... "Why?" is a time consuming question that is fast becoming ever present in every tasking given to our younger force

The question may illicit an instructive response from a peer, irritation by middle management, or even enrage senior management not accustomed to having to justify the tasking. To Generation Why, the answer "Because" is just not good enough. Generation Why demands to know the purpose of a task; feel that he can make an assessment on its validity, and feel that he has the authority to challenge if he does not agree. One would tend to believe that this attitude is not exactly conducive to military life. On the contrary, one could argue that Generation Why is exactly what we need.

In an era of aging equipment and resource constraints, transformational ideas are more important than ever before. Generation Why will fuel transformation by seeking answers to tough questions and forcing the institution to validate age-old processes. Our success or failure in fueling transformation will rely on two aspects of communication:

First is how senior management learns to talk to and motivate Generation Why. How do you motivate a generation unfamiliar with a world without computers, the internet or cell phone texting. In the most affluent generation of our nation, how do you motivate a generation that believes that the "call of duty" is an awesome video game that is best played on the XBox 360; a generation whose parents would not consider purchasing the latest technology without first consulting their 16 year old teenager. Eric Chester, renowned author and motivational speaker on the subject of Generation Why advises that supervisors should incentivize the norm or acceptable behavior as well as superior performance. His studies of 16-24 year olds reveal that they respond to incentives for expected behavior rather than harsh punishment. No doubt punishment and military discipline are nearly inseparable and is sometimes the only remaining course of action. But positive incentives have generally proven effective in keeping the airman from ever getting to such a point. Rewarding good attitudes, effort or the submission of fresh ideas all have a positive effect on Generation Why.

Delegation of challenging problems with the freedom to develop creative solutions also excites Generation Why and is part of our mentorship responsibilities. To Generation Why, all needed information is online, visual and accessible on demand. Our airmen have the ability to integrate concepts from multiple sources, synthesize disparate information and produce unique solutions when they understand the "Why" of a task. The question therefore is not so different than understanding "Commanders Intent"-- a concise expression of the purpose of an operation and the desired end state.

The second aspect of communication to fuel transformation is how to teach this new generation to ask the Why question in a respectful yet compelling manner. It is painfully clear that today's youth is not as intimidated by higher rank than our previous generation.
Generation Why may have developed a perception of having low regard for customs and courtesies, a general apathetic lifestyle, a feeling that they have a constitutional right to be respected, that some jobs are beneath them, and that loyalty is something that must be earned. Generation Why "demands" to know why things are the way they are and are frustrated by middle management that don't have the time to explain.

In this case, mentorship is key. NCOs and senior NCOs are the link that ties the strategic "Why" with the tactical "How". The Professional Enhancement Center here on Goodfellow was quick to recognize these generational differences and offers a 2-hour seminar entitled "Leading Across Generations". The seminar highlights generational differences of Air Force members identifying that we have at least four generations working side-by-side. Understanding the differences and generational backgrounds is key to communication and cooperation. The seminar targets SNCOs interested in discussion of leadership strategies for different generations of subordinates. The course is invaluable in beginning to understand and successfully mentor Generation Why.

Asking why is the way this generation develops the frame of reference needed to make sense of current realities. By asking why, the generation is able to assign meaning to what they've been asked to do. It is this sense of meaning that also excites Gen-Why and induces remarkable results.

Generation Why is smart, confident, creative and fearless. To learn what makes them tick, to incentivize good behavior, to challenge them with delegated problems; to mentor them in the art of respectful engagement, to take the time to answer the Why and assign meaning to the task; to do all this is what it takes to motivate Generation Why. Encouraging the generation to continue challenging the status quo will ignite a passion for self-evaluation and innovation that will undoubtedly fuel transformation and allow the U.S. to retain the title of the most agile, mobile and lethal Air Force on the face of the earth.