In previous posts, I identified the soft skills that young employees are missing that their older colleagues value the most: professionalism, critical thinking and followership. Let’s take a closer look at followership.

It may be too easy to explain away millennials’ seeming disregard for followership – that is, the soft skills required to set aside individualism, join something larger and make personal sacrifices for the greater good. After all, by the time they were growing up, “Question Authority!” had gone from slogan to hackneyed cliché. But isn’t it also true that millennials have led the crusade for mission-driven work and corporate charity?

We know that millennials are all about contributing to something greater than themselves and are willing to put in the hard work and personal sacrifices to do so. So, what causes the followership disconnect that leaders and managers see in the workplace? There are four reasons.

1. Millennials Think Like Customers.

Of course, millennials know that their employers are the ones paying them. But they look at their relationship with any established institution, no matter how small or large, and think something along the lines of, “What do you have for me? And what currency do I need to use to get what I want or need from you?”

It’s easy to say that millennials seem clueless, but the reality is that they know very well that they are much less likely than members of prior generations to have long-term, uninterrupted careers with one organization. They are less likely to trust the system or the organization to take care of them and, thus, less likely to exhibit what was traditionally thought of as “employer loyalty.”

2. Young Employees Have Less Experience With Working Relationships.

Regardless of generation, young employees always lack general experience with working relationships. Particularly, they are unaccustomed to interacting with peers who are:

  • Not all roughly their age
  • Not involved in relationships of their own choosing
  • Not refereed constantly (by someone in authority)
  • Not also engaging with them in a parallel conversation through social media

These relationships are real-world, involve a high degree of interdependency in pursuit of concrete goals and have high stakes. When a young employee is learning the ropes of interacting with his or her colleagues, there are lots of opportunities to disappoint or be disappointed.

3. Millennials View Those in Authority Differently.

Once again, they think like customers – specifically, your customer! Millennials look at older, more experienced people and expect them to, in some way, take care of them. This isn’t necessarily the result of entitlement, either: Millennials understand that if you’re employing them, then their success is your success. If you aren’t setting them up for success in your organization, doesn’t that affect your bottom line? Don’t you want your new young talent to shine and deliver great results? And if you’re not helping them succeed, then why should they continue working for you, anyway? This is the point of view that millennials bring to the table as employees.

4. Millennials Know They Should Keep Their Options Open.

Because they are not likely to follow a traditional, old-fashioned career path with a single organization, Millennials are more likely to view any new employer as potentially short-term. They don’t know how long any particular employment situation will continue to work for them, so they typically begin with the view that they are just “passing through.” Why go to a whole lot of trouble adapting to a new employer’s approach when they may not even be there that long? Even if they will adapt for an employer eventually, they are unlikely to be ready to do so from the get-go.

The thing is, if you invest in building your new young employees’ followership skills, starting as early as the onboarding process, you are much more likely to retain them for a significant period of time. How? By starting with the first step in developing employee followership: establishing context.

Context for new employees involves several things, from the micro- to the macro-level. On the micro-level, context is about work relationships and dynamics:

  • Who are the new employee’s co-workers?
  • Who is the new employee’s manager?
  • What are those individuals’ roles in the company?
  • What are those individuals’ roles on the team?
  • How do those circumstances influence the new employee’s role in the company and on the team?

On the macro-level, context is about the organization itself – its mission, its culture, and how the new employee fits into the overall mission and culture. Typical onboarding practices are great at communicating the first half: the organization’s mission and culture. But they are not so great at the second half: connecting the employee directly to the organization’s mission and culture.

Spell it out; make it clear how new employees, and their work, contributes to the big picture. Highlight your organization’s values and how they can exhibit those values every day. By creating a specific employee-employer connection at the outset, and supporting that connection throughout an employee’s tenure, those young employees are much more likely to feel that they are an important part of something larger. In other words, their personal values become connected to the organization’s values.