From the vault: This column on generational diversity and tips in leading Gen Z was really popular with readers earlier this year, analyzing a topic on the minds of the executives and leaders I counsel and coach. In this new era, which I call “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World,” the fusion in balancing empathy and economics is at the center of winning in the marketplace and with your stakeholders. None of this matters, though, if you can’t attract and retain the best talent. I’ve made some modifications, but the ideas outlined below are foundational as we build robust culture-centric leaders and organizations. 


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The economic and business challenges of the last several years have proven that future success will be founded on recruiting and retaining talented employees. The results speak for themselves: Teams that communicate better and are more collaborative are the conduit for stronger organizations. Yet, we now have parts or all of five different generations in the American workforce. The potential difficulty in leading these diverse groups is on the mind of executives I counsel and coach. 

While each generation provides its own opportunities and challenges when looked at as a whole, many leaders are asking specifically about how to bring Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) into the workplace, particularly since they comprise about 10% to 25% of the current workforce. 

Donald Thompson


The first idea to consider is that Gen Z is distinct from its predecessors and some leaders and managers find this baffling. For example, Gen Z is socially conscious, tech-forward and wishes to enter workplaces that are diverse, equitable and inclusive. However, many young people have a general nonchalance or outright disdain for “regular jobs.” This has led some critics to label them entitled, lazy or hard to work with.

The questions about how to lead a generational cohort that doesn’t seem committed to the same ideas about work as their parents and grandparents has left many leaders scratching their heads. How should a manager, for example, motivate a younger employee who feels their “side hustle” is as important (if not more) than their “day job?” Changing ideas about remote work, unlimited time off and what constitutes the work day are also forcing managers to rethink what they know about leading. 


Although every generation seems to face a certain level of disdain from its predecessors (as a Gen Xer, I remember getting the “slacker” label), 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, which asked more than 1,300 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 respondents claimed they have to fire Gen Zers more frequently than other generations – 20% said they had to “fire a Gen Z employee within a week…[while] 27% say within a month.” 

These statistics reveal a stark reality between expectations of managers and employees. 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. 


A new research report from Deloitte examines the issue from a different perspective, asking what Gen Z wants from bosses. Reversing the question, the research team asked: “How can their bosses create a space for them to thrive?” The Deloitte team revealed that Gen Z employees “highly value” empathy from their managers, essentially a 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. 


Given these survey results, leading Gen Z employees requires 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 objective might be to help Gen Z understand the role of face-to-face and interpersonal communications. For a generation that grew up sharing milestones on Instagram and texting their deepest secrets, Slack might feel comforting, but their colleagues want meetings and in-person engagement.

To bridge the knowledge gap between leaders and Gen Z employees, senior executives might take time to understand their unique perspectives. Leaders can gather information via surveys, focus groups or scheduling one-on-one meeting. If the 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.”

Working collaboratively, leaders and Gen Z employees may identify and implement effective DEI programs. 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 (currently cited as a challenge with younger colleagues). 

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. 

Another tip is to foster open communication channels that enable Gen Z employees to freely share their thoughts and perspectives. Despite what preconceived notions a leader or manager might have about Gen Z generally, the interaction is going to undergo constant flux as more young people enter the workplace. Skills like active listening will be essential tools as leaders adapt to this generation’s needs. 

There is also an accountability factor that the 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. 

Currently, there is a large gap between what leaders are seeing in the workplace and what they hope for in the future. This disconnect will only expand if resources and effort are not put in place to address the challenges. Workplace excellence hinges on finding ways employees across generations to work together as trusting teammates. 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Southeast Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to change the world. As TDM CEO, he has guided work with hundreds of clients and through millions of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is 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 for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.