Understanding — and Dealing With — Free Agent Mentality

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By Margaret Graziano

The occupants of today’s C-suites face a younger workforce whose expectations of life and career often differ significantly from their own.

Many of these “late Millennials” and still-new-to-the-workforce Gen Z-ers, catapulted by Covid into remote work, now see themselves as free agents and feel little loyalty to the healthcare organizations that currently employ them. 

What are the folks in the corner offices to think about this, and how are they to cope?

After over a decade of working with hundreds of CEOs and thousands more junior people, here, in a nutshell, is what I see: 

Traditional employees have a sense of identity gained largely through their work. That’s what gives them purpose in life. For many younger people, it’s the opposite. They already have a sense of purpose. They just want their work to validate and enhance it.

Let’s take a closer look. First, here’s what I’ve learned about free agents.

Fundamentally, these are people who want to take responsibility for their lives. The more conscious they become of the possibilities, the more they realize that their talents allow them to escape the traditional employee role. The more awake they are to their smarts and abilities, the likelier they are to exploit the many platforms that can monetize their energy and allow them to sculpt their own lives — things like LinkedIn, Upwork, Fiverr, and a zillion more places that help them feel they don’t need an old-fashioned job. These places also include multilevel marketing … health product marketing … work as an independent dealer, distributor or sales rep … or even driving for Uber, Lyft or DoorDash. Free agents know they no longer need to listen to Mary Sue Johnson telling them they have to show up at eight and do everything they way she says. They’re realizing that they are now Ms. Johnson, and that they can be masters of their own lives.

It doesn’t end with merely wanting to be one’s own boss. Free agents want more: challenge, variety, self-expression, self-actualization, freedom, empowerment, learning and growth.

But that’s not all. They also want an emotional connection to their work, to know that what they’re doing matters — and not just in the big causes of the wider world that they pursue in their free time but also in the mission of the organization that employs them. They want to see the work they do actually helping accomplish that mission, achieving results that make a difference.

At bottom, free agents are motivated by (1) living a life that’s fulfilling and (2) earning a living at something that enhances their fulfillment.

These values and expectations contrast with those of earlier generations, who feel the need to get up at six, eat breakfast, drive to work and check in at eight. They look forward to the same daily work experience and years of predictable days. They’ve learned to be satisfied with a life of diligence, obligation and responsibility, all of which provide purpose. It may sound cynical to put it this way, but such a life of duty, loyalty and doing what’s expected is seen as the road to a lifetime of health insurance coverage capped by a gold watch and a moderately comfortable retirement.

The contrast between the mentality of traditional employees and younger free agents is — with a bit of exaggeration — that old school employees believe they’re doing a great job if they stay until the work is done, even if extra time is required. Free agents, on the other hand, feel the company’s work is never done and only lifers stay late trying to complete it. As for themselves, they think: “I’m not interested in a life like that. Today’s job is the way I’m earning the money that supports me right now — and maybe for the next year. But it’s not a lifetime commitment. No way! That’s not my lifestyle.”

How should employers handle the rise of free agency? In my experience, the best approach is to continually communicate and check in regularly — take the pulse — with questions like: Are you happy here? Are you doing what you want to do? Does the work resonate with you? What can we do to help you feel more involved? Are you getting what you need from the company to enable you to do what’s required? Would you like to stay? What can we do to keep you on the team?

Dealing with free agents and wannabe free agents is like dating. You’re trying hard. You want to make a great impression. You’re on your best behavior. You often check in — “How are we doing?”

When you’re married, on the other hand, it’s like being on autopilot. “We’re comfortable up here at 30,000 feet. We’ll always be together.”

But there’s no taking anyone for granted when dealing with a free agent. You’re always interviewing. And you’re always being interviewed.

So stay on your toes, all you CEOs. Keep communicating. And keep your finger on the pulse.

Margaret “Magi” Graziano is the founder and CEO of KeenAlignment and is dedicated to delivering breakthrough business performance through aligned cultures, effective leaders and employee optimization. She can be reached at [email protected]