Managing Millennials: What Would Dolly Parton Do?

In millennial culture, authenticity trumps perfection.

On May 13 Eliza Thompson wrote a feature for Cosmopolitan called, “Why Dolly Parton Is a Goddess Among Twentysomethings.” In explaining Dolly’s appeal Thompson writes:

Millennials, more than anything, see through fakeness. They love Jennifer Lawrence because she falls down while accepting her Oscar and eats Doritos in her costumes, but they hate Anne Hathaway because she seems too polished.”

The love of authentic and the hate of fake makes Dolly an interesting hero:

Dolly’s nails, breasts, hair, and face might be fake, but her candor about all that fakeness makes her more real than any younger star denying a nose job or posting ‘no makeup’ selfies.”

Dolly Parton has created a successful professional persona, she has integrated her authentic self with a crafted self, and fans love her for it.


If asked to identify herself, my daughter will think before she answers.

She has a name, a gender, a mom who is a black American and a dad who is a white German. She is a daughter, a sister, a grandchild, a daddy’s girl, a 2nd grader, a best friend, and so on.

The identity she chooses depends on who’s asking. Any of these possible answers is an authentic part of who she is.

Have your family or friends from your non-work life ever told you that you were speaking in a “work” voice, posturing in a “work” stance, or wearing your “work” face while out of the office? Their point is that you were not behaving like the authentic you.

We grow up knowing that various personas are available to us. However, in our careers we often limit ourselves to a one-dimension “work” persona.

So, if even a child can recognize that different contexts call for different personas, why do so many adults rely on one persona to get them through most work situations?


We make an implicit assumption that at work we cannot be our authentic selves and that we need to play a part.

The work persona is often what we think people expect us to be. Early in our career, despite our awareness of a many-faceted authentic self, we tend to craft a work persona that others perceive as one-note.

Inside us there is a tension between being real and being acceptable.

In his book, “Motivation and Personality,” Abraham Maslow explains two competing desires: to be our true self or to be the person others expect us to be.

Being our true selves is what Maslow categorizes as an “expressive” behavior. Being who we think others expect us to be is a “coping” behavior. Expressive behaviors are authentic, pleasurable and creative. Coping behaviors are purposed, a means to an end.

It seems that the sweet spot of effective behavior is when one stops viewing their choice of behaviors as either expressive or coping, the true self or a shaped self, and instead sees it is possible to integrate the effective elements of both identities.

Expressiveness of personality needs to be bounded (not eradicated) by corporate culture.

Let’s revisit Mary and Brad from a previous post, “I Hate Managing Millennials.”

A company’s culture dictates expected behaviors. If Mary’s company has a creative culture, then delivering a dry, text heavy, picture less presentation will alienate the audience.

If Mary’s strength is in analytics and not in creating inspiring presentations, she may consider asking her creative agency for help.

Brad’s work culture is communal. Taking an aggressive posture against a presenter after the team has collectively validated the presentation, is not acceptable behavior.

To cope with this culture and still be true to his individualism, Brad will need to find ways to stand out as a leader among equals. Instead of “dropping” his ideas in a meeting, he could shop around his ideas and gather input from the team prior to meetings. He will need collective ownership of his ideas to get them noticed, in a positive way.

Acknowledging and abiding by cultural expectations does not mean there isn’t room to be expressive. The ideal of diversity in the workplace assumes that people will contribute their individual ideas, experiences and points of view while at the same time having their expressiveness constrained by the cultural norms of acceptable behaviors.

If a company culture is in conflict with one’s values and identity, then that is a valid reason for seeking employment somewhere else. To tune one’s behavior to a culture that is a bad fit, is faking it. This is obvious to others and no one wins in that situation.


It is the role of the more senior professionals to help the company’s future leaders learn how to be themselves within the constraints of cultural norms. A few ideas on how to help:

  1. Give permission. Encourage younger professionals to be themselves at work.
  2. Be explicit. Don’t assume that cultural norms are obvious to everyone. Prep your team ahead of key meetings on appropriate behaviors.
  3. Praise expressiveness. Tell individuals the specific, personal qualities about them that are endearing and culture appropriate.

While using Dolly Parton as a managerial role model will raise eyebrows from the old folks, the young folks will get it. No doubt.


Stacie Hoffmeister is the founder of Facts + Heresies LLC and offers brand consulting for companies targeting affluent millennials. Stacie has over a decade of experience in global brand management and innovation at Unilever, Coty and LVMH. If you like her blog, subscribe here.

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