That seems to be the accepted sentiment among older adults as they look askance upon today’s young professionals. Yet intergenerational mistrust is hardly a new phenomenon. I can remember a day when I was viewed skeptically for no other reason than my youth––it wasn’t fair then, and it isn’t fair to Gen Z.
I’m not suggesting that we give all young employees a complete pass. Certain Gen Z characteristics, like a tendency toward work-related ghosting behavior, need to be curbed. However, as leaders, we need to start reframing the way we think about the traits that seem unusual to us.
For example, consider Gen Z’s notable desire to push against the traditional roles of manager and employee. Gen Z is more open about asking questions of their bosses rather than capitulating. And they expect empathy in return, not a curt, “Do what I say because it’s part of your job description.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I look back on some of my early workplace experiences and wonder how compassion might have enhanced my relationships with supervisors.
The point is that Gen Z doesn’t deserve to be seen as the enemy––it’s not productive or helpful. If we continue to view our incoming team members as “the other,” we’ll lose momentum and hurt morale as business owners. Instead, we need to embrace what Shallow, a character in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” noted: “We have some salt of our youth in us.” In other words, we’re not too old to remember what it was like to be the new kids on the block.
So, how can you move from a gloom and doom mindset when considering Gen Z? Try taking these steps with the rest of your executives to temper your concerns.
1. Get in Gen Z’s heads.
A full 74% of supervisors say that managing Gen Z workers is harder than managing workers from other generational cohorts. Though that might be true on some levels, it probably indicates that there’s a serious divide between those supervisors and their younger direct reports.
Until you dive into the Gen Z perspective on life, you can’t hope to reach your Gen Z workers. Consequently, you need to start focusing on what Gen Z wants out of their occupational lives. En masse, they’re interested in snagging jobs with competitive salaries, which isn’t surprising. But what is surprising is their willingness to give up a higher paycheck for the opportunity to engage in interesting work that allows for self-expression and innovation.
The bottom line is that Gen Z wants to contribute from the get-go. They don’t want to wait for decades to make a difference. They’d prefer to taste from the whole buffet of choices rather than only nibble on a limited selection of items. To satisfy their desire to go for the gusto and jump in with both feet, consider giving Gen Z employees the chance to shine. An example might be to let them lead certain projects or take point on internal initiatives like employee resource groups. Not only will they be able to develop and explore their professional abilities, but you could end up grooming future leaders.
2. Ditch the stereotyping.
Guess what? Gen Z knows how you feel about them. They’re digital natives, after all, and they see the stories and articles about themselves. Rather than giving in to stereotyping, see every Gen Z worker on your team as an individual. Get to know them as people. Lumping them together is as ridiculous as lumping all Millennials, Gen Xers, or Baby Boomers.
Stereotyping isn’t just a bad idea, either; it can land you in hot water. When you lean into stereotypes, you fall prey to the lure of unconscious bias. Think about the stereotype that says older workers can’t be tech-savvy. What if you avoided considering a Gen X or Boomer employee for a promotion on the assumption that they couldn’t handle the technical side of things? Or presumed they would jump ship to retire and weren’t worth your consideration? You could wind up on the ugly end of an age discrimination lawsuit a la Lilly USA. Not good for your brand or its culture.
Sending a message that any group of people in your workplace is somehow “lesser” than the others is just a terrible move. The next time you’re about to complain about your Gen Z workers, rethink your words. They might cause an effect you don’t want.
3. Shift to a multigenerational workforce leadership style.
Many offices right now include four generations of employees working side by side. Instead of putting each generation into “buckets,” concentrate on moving toward a more personalized form of leadership, guidance, and mentoring. A one-size-fits-all corporate culture won’t get you where you need to go to stay competitive with today’s workforce.
Gloria St. Martin-Lowry is president of HPWP Group, a company that promotes leadership and organizational development through positivity, coaching, and problem-solving. She explains that this individualistic approach only makes sense. It also acknowledges the truth that plenty of Gen Z’s habits that are seen as disruptive are actually outcomes of how they were raised by Boomer and Gen X parents.
“These are young people brought up by generations who wanted more freedom for their children and who wanted them to thrive under fewer restrictions and hierarchies,” writes St. Martin-Lowry. “Should we blame them when they do as we hoped and live freely? When they change the ‘rules’ to suit themselves? Throwing out the traditional rulebook might seem daunting, risky, or even ill-advised––but you’d be wise to see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge. By sticking to old ways just because ‘that’s how it’s always been done,’ you miss out on new ideas and new opportunities that today’s workforce has in store.”
Today’s leaders need to embrace Gen Z as the changemakers they are. The working world is evolving, and Gen Z is poised to help you succeed by bringing engagement, passion, and connections to the table. With their assistance, your brand will stay pertinent—and maybe be more attractive to their consumer peers.
The next time you start a sentence with, “Those Gen Z kids…,” stop yourself. Our society isn’t spiraling downward just because another generation is entering the professional world. The world is simply doing what it always does: making way for the exciting possibilities of tomorrow.