Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.
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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Gen Z has a baffling attitude about work. Members of this cohort (born between 1997 and 2012) are socially conscious, tech-forward and want workplaces that are diverse, equitable and inclusive. But many display a nonchalance and outright disdain for “regular jobs” that have critics calling them entitled, lazy or hard to work with.
In the perpetual race against age and entropy, Gen Z is already a force in the economy from a consumer perspective. Soon, they will be a focal point of organizational success as companies search for the best talent to replace retiring baby boomers and Gen Xers.
Given these confounding traits, how do senior business leaders engage with and lead Gen Z, particularly now that experts estimate that they comprise 10% to 25% of the U.S. workforce?
GEN Z: CURRENT STATE
Although every generation seems to face a certain level of disdain from its predecessors (as a Gen Xer, I remember having the “slacker” label placed on us), there seems to be a new level of animosity for Gen Z. In the workplace, these challenges have been placed under a microscope with managers citing lack of technological skills, lack of effort and lack of productivity as common problems.
Anecdotal evidence is backed up by recent research, including the results of a survey conducted by ResumeBuilder.com, which asked 1,344 managers and business leaders about engaging with Gen Z. Of respondents, three out of four (74%) believed that Gen Z “is more difficult to work with than other generations.”
The survey also revealed an even starker set of negative experiences that could have lasting consequences on the future of work. Some 65% of ResumeBuilder.com respondents claimed they have to fire Gen Zers more than other generations, with 20% saying they had to “fire a Gen Z employee within a week…[and] 27% say within a month.”
These statistics reveal a stark reality. There is a psychological and emotional toll in being fired or having to fire someone else, which some people never overcome. I have to wonder if we are basically training a generation of employees to find work a place of constant friction and confrontation.
CREATING SPACE FOR GEN Z TO THRIVE
A new research report from Deloitte examines the issue from a different perspective, asking what Gen Z wants from bosses, rather than the traditional top-down perspective. Reversing the question, the research team asked: “How can their bosses create a space for them to thrive?”
From this vantage point, the Deloitte team revealed that Gen Z employees “highly value” empathy from their managers and see this as non-negotiable. The challenge, though, is that the bosses surveyed “do not place as high of a value on demonstrating empathy.”
Another focal point centered on mental health. Again, there was a significant disconnect between what Gen Z employees want and what their bosses are giving, with fewer than 50% of younger workers reporting their managers helped them “maintain a healthy workload.”
The Deloitte team also uncovered a basic systemic difference between Gen Z and their bosses, with the former simply not willing to see work as a “significant part of their identity.” Nearly 9 in 10 leaders view their identities tied to work, while just 61% of Gen Z agrees.
TIPS FOR MANAGING THE GAPS
Clearly, leading Gen Z employees requires managers and leaders to change the way they operate if they hope to take advantage of what these young people offer. Initially, at least, the most significant challenge may be to help Gen Z understand the role of face-to-face and interpersonal communications in the contemporary workplace. For a generation that grew up sharing milestones on Instagram and texting their deepest secrets they might gravitate toward Slack, but avoid meetings and in-person interactions.
To bridge the knowledge gap between leaders and Gen Z employees, senior executives should also take the time to understand their unique perspectives and needs. They can gather information via surveys, focus groups or by scheduling one-on-one meeting times with them. If the ResumeBuilder.com survey results are an indicator, then this disconnect with Gen Z is not a problem that can be ignored.
However, the most authentic and meaningful step might be to empower young professionals by including them in developing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies and initiatives. As the Deloitte team noted: “More than other generations, Gen Z wants to have their voices heard. They want agency to create a future that they find meaningful. Enlist their energy and problem-solving skills.”
By working collaboratively, leaders and Gen Z employees can identify and implement DEI programs that are relevant and effective. The leaders and teammates will not only see what Gen Z brings to the organization, but will also serve as role models for how to communicate and work together (cited as current challenges with younger workers).
Another tip is for senior executives to find ways to foster open communication channels that enable Gen Z employees to share their thoughts and perspectives freely. Despite what preconceived notions or ideas a leader or manager might have about Gen Z as a whole, the interaction is going to undergo constant flux as more Gen Zers enter the workplace. Skills like active listening will be essential tools as leaders adapt to this generation’s needs.
Based on Gen Z’s interest in authentic diversity, an organization’s DEI programming might be the best way to bring them into the organization’s culture. For senior leaders, that means dedicating the necessary resources to diversity-led initiatives and providing training and development opportunities organization-wide, but with particular emphasis on Gen Z.
There is also an accountability factor that the ResumeBuilder.com survey did not factor into its findings. An organization and its leaders have responsibility to their Gen Z employees, just as they do for any generational cohort. Executives have to develop ways – even if they are uncomfortable – to manage and lead these workers if they hope to find success. Blaming them sends the wrong message and firing them doesn’t help the business.
Through collaboration and proactive leadership, executives can create a workplace culture that includes Gen Z. “One area that both members of Gen Z and their bosses agree is that the workplace can and must change,” explained the Deloitte team. More than 70% of bosses say they are excited about how Gen Z will change the workplace, yet the proof is in the results. There is a large gap between current and future state – a disconnect that will only expand if real resources and efforts are not put in place to address the challenges.
About the Author
Donald Thompson founded The Diversity Movement to literally change the world. As CEO, he has guided its work with hundreds of clients and through hundreds of thousands of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, he is the author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events, and his podcast, or contact him at email@example.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content.