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Followership for Millennials – The Basics of Providing Context

By Bruce Tulgan – Part 1 of a 4 Part Series

Before any individual can possibly succeed at practicing good “followership,” they must develop a fundamental respect for context. The person must learn to read and appreciate and accept and embrace adapting to the existing structure, rules, customs, and leaders in an unfamiliar situation.

Indeed, young employees today are more likely to disagree openly with employers’ missions, policies, and decisions and challenge employment conditions and established reward systems. They are less obedient to employers’ rules and supervisors’ instructions. They are less likely to heed organizational chart authority. Millennials respect transactional authority: control of resources, control of rewards, and control of work conditions. There are really only two ways they can choose to go in a new job: fit in or stand out. Too often, their inclination is to stand out.

Managers often tell us that today’s new young employees seem to suffer from a fundamental lack of context. Yes, this is partly a function of youth. Young people have less life experience than older people and thus fewer points of reference to compare circumstances, people, and relationships. Context is all about these points of reference. So lack of context goes with being in the first adult life stages. But there is much more going on here. Our research indicates that Millennials have a very particular contextual bias when they enter an established institution with “adult” authority figures. For most Millennials, the most familiar context of adult supervision is their experience with parents and teachers and counselors – adult authority figures in highly supportive caretaking roles.

In fact, Millennials very much appreciate and respect age and experience. After all, they have been the beneficiaries of an extraordinary level of nurturing in their relationships with adults – more than any generation in history. This does not result in a particular deference to authority or acquiescence to established norms and structures. Rather, they are quite accustomed to child-centric contexts in which their feelings, words, and actions have usually been accorded a huge amount of attention by adult authority figures. Their relationships with these authority figures have largely been defined in terms of the dedication, commitment, and service of the adults toward the children, not the other way around. Their preferences have been given much weight, and their opinions have been given much airtime in discussions.

As a result, Millennials enter the workplace with the expectation that they will now be cared for, rather than being ordered around. Of course, the problem is that, in this context, you are paying them, not the other way around.

The good news is that young people understand transactional relationships. They know what it means to be the customer. They might just have to be reminded that, in this situation, they are not the customers. The employer is the customer. As the manager, you are not claiming to be superior to them in any kind of absolute sense. You are not claiming to be higher on the “food chain” in the cosmos. You just need to make it clear to them:

Just in this context: In this role, in this job, in this chain of command in this organization. I am the leader. You are the follower. If you want to belong here, this is how you understand, accept, embrace, and adapt to your place in the structure, rules, customs, and leadership here.

Teaching new young employees to develop respect for context means helping them to realize that work is situational and their role in any situation is determined in large part by factors that have nothing to do with them. There are preexisting, independent factors that would be present even if they were not, and these factors determine the context of any situation.

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

Defining ‘Good Citizenship’ in the Workplace – Part Three

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