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On followership for Millennials in the workplace

There is a point in the first installment of The Lord of the Rings when all the worthy individuals representing various beings in Middle Earth meet to try and decide what should be done about the one ring of power. The title of the book is “The Fellowship of the Ring” because eventually they all go on a common quest.

I’m not going to insert any spoilers here (and I strongly recommend the books and the movies) but the point is that all those exceptional characters are not doing a great job of getting along, putting aside their differences in order to join something bigger and make personal sacrifices for the greater good.

Basically they lack those particular skills that make up followership.

On followership for Millennials in the workplace

Most of today’s employees belong to the Millennial demographic and share these individualistic traits with Tolkien’s characters. There is a lot of talk about leadership and how it should be cultivated in organizations but few discuss the complementary skill that has to go with it.

To some extent it is rather ironic that the generation that managed to change the face of corporation so they became mission driven and socially responsible is also lacking the ability to rally and follow direction in the workplace.

Encourage open communication

One of the main reasons Millennials are so difficult to lead is that they have been brought up in the spirit of questioning both the status quo and authority. Their parents were less strict than the older generations and even though there may have been some rules, Millennials were used to having a say in everything that concerned them starting from a very early age.

With all things being subject to negotiation and debate, they expect the same thing once they get a job. It’s not that they don’t recognize authority, they simply position themselves differently. What can be regarded by some as a lack of respect is actually their natural way of making sense of the world.

If the organization truly wants to cultivate followership among its younger employees, it has to promote very open conversations between employees and decision makers. The “because I said so” (or, in a business context “because the board has decided this way”) approach does not work for them and in the face of such an attitude they will either leave the organization or become utterly disengaged and have rather poor results.

Give them context

Millennials seek to work for a bigger purpose. Developing their followership skills ought to start right with the recruitment and onboarding process. In order to feel like they are contributors to a bigger picture, they need to see what that pictures is. Here are some questions to provide the answer to:

  • Who are those they will be working with?
  • Who is the team leader or manager?
  • What are their roles within the organization?
  • What are their roles within the team?
  • What factors can have a bearing on his/her role in the team?

On the macro-level, context has to do with the organization itself – its mission, its culture, and how employees fit in the organizational culture. Normally the typical onboarding presentation does a wonderful job of presenting the company, its values and mission in the most flattering light but leaves to be desired in establishing a real connection between the new hire and the organization.

Read more: Exploring the onboarding process

It is best to create a very specific employee-employer connection right from the start. Millennials need to feel that they are part of something and to some extent blend their personal lives with their professional ones.

Be true to the organizational values

For a very long time, company values were used mainly for marketing purposes. Some had a handful of them and did their best to promote a public image that reflected them, some had so many values that it was almost impossible to balance all of them – I once worked on a project for a German multinational company that had fifteen declared values. Fifteen! They barely fit on a poster and there was not one employee who could name all of them.

Well, posters don’t really impress Millennials and Gen Z’s share this opinion. Organizations need to convincingly change their focus because

  • ”Only a minority now believes that corporations behave ethically (48 percent versus 65 percent last year) and that
  • Business leaders are committed to helping improve society (47 percent versus 62 percent)
  • Three-quarters see businesses around the world focusing on their own agendas rather than considering the wider society (up from 59 percent), and
  • Nearly two-thirds say companies have no ambition beyond wanting to make money (up from 50 percent)”

If companies wish their employees to truly be engaged and driven, they need to become truly transparent and socially responsible.

Closing thoughts

It’s important to understand that Millennials are not against following leaders. They may have a slightly different view an authority than previous generations and their behavior in the workplace might be closer to that of customers than of employees but followership can be developed through open communication, context and transparently supported values.