Are You the Tortoise or the Hare?

Everyone knows the story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare was faster (and he knew it), and when the day of the Big Race came he ran so far out ahead of the tortoise that he decided to stop and take a rest. There was no way the tortoise could catch him. The hare was so confident in himself that he decided to take a nap under an oak tree right in the middle of the race! Then along came the tortoise, whose “slow and steady” approach led him right past the sleeping hare, inching closer and closer to the finish line. By the time the hare finally woke up, he was horrified to see how much further ahead the tortoise was! The hare ran faster than he’d ever run before, but it wasn’t fast enough and he could only watch in shock from afar as the tortoise crossed the finish line and won the race.

I heard this story many times as a kid and before I turned five I could recite its mantra by heart. “Slow and steady wins the race.” It’s a time-honored saying and chances are that each of us has heard some version of it repeated in our adult lives. “Play the long game,” “pace yourself,” or “good things come to those who wait.” But this approach is not a very attractive offer to Gen-Y (and even more so Gen-Z). 

From all the current stereotypes and literature, it should come as no surprise that millennials are, for the most part, the hares of the business world. We have a very high-level of confidence in our abilities, we typically work at a very fast, sometimes dangerous pace, and when it looks like there’s no further challenge or driving need to keep up the pace, we are very much at risk of shutting down and coasting through our day (i.e. taking a nap in the middle of the race).

And if Gen-Yers and Gen-Zers are hares, then Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers are, for the most part, the tortoises. They’ve progressed through the ranks steadily and have adhered to a tried-and-true formula of methodical input in the pursuit of long-term goals. And while the first thing that comes to many of our minds when we think of tortoises is that they are slow, in reality this approach is still heavily favored by the majority of businesses. A hare is fast-paced and energetic, but a tortoise is reliable and experienced, and in the corporate world the security of the tortoise method is hard to drift away from.

Because of this, most companies want their young employees to become tortoises and as a result managers often see their millennials’ hare characteristics as a knowledge gap. A lot of the feedback I’ve received early in my career was that I appeared disinterested in the projects I was given and that my mind seemed to wander during two-hour meetings. And they were absolutely right! I hated my three-month reviews of earnings spreadsheets and audit reports, and once a meeting went over the hour mark I looked out the window more than I looked at the presenter.

To the leaders of that company I probably looked like a self-entitled, arrogant, impatient millennial. But to me, my managers worked too slow, did not utilize the most efficient business practices, and asked me to deliver projects on time frames and in formats that made no sense to me. The disconnect: I am a full-bloodied hare, but that company wanted me to operate like a tortoise.

In a balanced work environment you need both tortoises and hares, but as you might imagine, the two do not often see eye-to-eye. An entry-level hare might eagerly crank out a report in two or three hours and then balk as their tortoise manager take two days to give them feedback on it. At every learning conference I attend, whenever the topic of millennials arises, there’s always someone who stands up and asks, “How do I deal with these headstrong, ‘all-about-me, millennials?!” (cue an exacerbated eye roll from me).       

Well, the reality is, if you try to force a hare to behave like a tortoise, one of you is going to endlessly frustrate the other. I promise you, try to force a hare to walk instead of run and you will never get the best results out of that employee. Remember in the story that when the hare looked around and couldn’t see the drive in the race anymore, he stopped and took a nap! It’s not that he didn’t want to win the race anymore, but when all of the challenge and purpose of running went out of the race, he just simply stopped. Whenever hares feel like their coasting, their productivity, interest, and work ethic plummet.

“Why should I work on that report right now? It’s not due for two weeks, it’ll take me maybe half a day to finish it, and if I turned it in early, my boss would just ignore it until the deadline anyway. I’ll just stare at the clock, see what stories are interesting on buzzfeed today, and then start looking for at new job postings.”    

Instead, a successful manager of hares will find ways to use their driven mindset instead of trying to restrict it. Gen-Y and Gen-Z have an incredible appetite for diversity, speed, and excitement and that high desire for meaningful motivation results in a highly creative and productive employee when managed the right way. Hares thrive on short-term projects that have an immediate and measurable impact. It would be foolish to insist that you do not give millennials long-term projects, but when assigned without context or clear purpose, drawn-out projects can lead to coasting, particularly if the work is not engaging. Instead managers should use a combination of short-term and long-term goals to keep millennials engrossed not only in outcomes that can be readily measured, but also in more far-reaching developments for the division or company at-large. 

So if you’re a manager tortoise and you see one of your hares napping on the side of the road, try changing the way you structure their development. Hares would much rather be running than coasting! After all, the hare only fell asleep when the challenge fell out of the race! Very likely the hare will zigzag off and on the beaten path, and that’s precisely when the tortoise can pull them back on track.  

Are you more of a tortoise or a hare? Are you having a difficult time adjusting to your manager’s or young employees’ style? Join us back at Base Camp to hear what others are saying.