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Followership and Context: Defining ‘Good Citizenship’ in the Workplace

By Bruce Tulgan

Is loyalty dead? For many years in our research, we’ve been asking people of all ages: “Are you loyal to your employer?”

Most would assume that the oldest, most experienced people would probably evince the most employee loyalty, while the youngest, Millennials, would be the most disloyal. The conventional wisdom says that employee loyalty has been diminishing steadily from one generation to the next. Funnily enough, our research shows just the opposite. The older the person, the more likely they are to say, “No.” The younger the person, the more likely they are to say, “Yes.” Not only that, but over the years, younger people in the workplace have become more and more likely to say “Yes.” That no longer surprises me. The reason is that the very meaning of employee loyalty is changing.

What today’s young people mean when they say they are “loyal” to their employer is the kind of loyalty you get in a marketplace. It’s the kind of loyalty you give to a customer: You get exactly as much loyalty as you pay for, and it lasts as long as you keep paying. Of course, it’s not just money that Millennials are looking for in a job.

No hard feelings to you, the employer. It’s just not about you. It’s about them. Every step of the way, Millennials are going to try to fit their work situation into the life experience they are trying to create for themselves. The thing is that, in the earlier life and career stages, especially in these times, what’s going on in their lives at any given moment is not so easy to assess. It’s often a moving target.

This is very frustrating to a lot of employers. Managers often point to this unwillingness among young employees to be willing to make personal sacrifices without a clear quid pro quo, without asking “What’s in it for me?” To the ears of many older people, this sounds a lot like disloyalty, which is sort of like the opposite of good citizenship and followership. The whole idea of “citizenship” is that it is something more. There is an intangible element – a selflessness that goes beyond the transactional relationship.

Here’s hat I always tell managers: “Let go of the idea that good citizenship has to be completely selfless.” Good citizenship does not require selflessness. It’s ok if there is a quid pro quo. Employment relationships are transactional by their very nature. Very few people go to work every day who do not need to make a living. Most people would stop coming to work if you stopped paying them. That does not make them disloyal. You can get a very deep level of true commitment – something more – and still have the essence of the relationship be transactional.

Membership, belonging, and participation come with rights and rewards; that is the quid pro quo. What good citizenship requires is this: When you “join,” you are also fully accepting, embracing, and promising to observe the duties, even at considerable personal sacrifice, that are on the other side of that quid pro quo. That means you have to define those duties in no uncertain terms and make it really clear why they are important.

Over time, the power of belonging comes more and more from accepting, embracing, and observing one’s duties than it does from enjoying the rights and rewards of membership. But that’s one of those secrets of wisdom that only comes with experience and time.

Tell your young employees: “What good citizenship requires is this: When you ‘join’ an organization like this one, you must be prepared to accept and embrace and observe the duties that go along with all the rewards. Like every workplace, this organization has its own structure, rules, customs, and leadership. What good citizenship means in one organization may be very different from what it means in another.”

The Basics of Providing Context –  Part One

Giving the Gift of Context by Asking the Right Questions – Part Two

Coaching Performance – Part Four

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website