For the last 10 years, I’ve been learning to understand Generation Z in schools and universities. Now these students, who’ve been the talk of the educational world, are entering a workplace near you. And if you think you can lead them the same way you’ve been leading Millennials, you’re in for a big surprise.
Let’s start by defining our terms.
Generation Z (2001–2016) is the group of younger people coming behind the Millennials (1983–2000). This means that the oldest members of the Gen Z cohort are around 24 years of age. Though, like many generations, you can start to see characteristics of a generation appear long before the kids themselves show up.
This being said, for the sake of this article, much of the advice I want to give could be applied to many of the 20-somethings we are leading today — not just those who fall in between the nebulous barriers of Generation Z’s birth range.
As I have worked everywhere from classrooms to boardrooms, introducing leaders of all generations to these young people, I’ve begun to notice a few common mental mistakes leaders and managers make as they are working with their youngest team members. Most of these “mistakes” occur because of the “expectations gap” between generations. Because two people from two different generations grew up in very different time periods, the expectations they carry with them into the workplace tend to diverge. The problem with an expectations gap is that it creates a barrier of understanding that is almost invisible to both parties. Jonathan Haidt explores this very concept in his book, The Righteous Mind:
"Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possibility that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or running a society."
Because each party assumes there is only one way to understand a situation or define a term, the idea that someone could be expecting something different doesn’t even cross their minds. They are, to use Haidt’s words, “blinded” to how the other person thinks. If we are going to better lead the emerging generations, we must start by waking up to their point of view.
Three Common Mental Mistakes Leaders Make Leading Generation Z
Let’s take a look at the three most common mental mistakes I see managers and leaders make as they work with Generation Z. For each mistake, I will offer some advice on how to make an adjustment to better connect the dots between what you are expecting and what your young staff member is expecting.
Mistake #1: Thinking you should already have their respect.
Gone are the days when you are respected just because of your age, experience, or position. In the mind of a member of Generation Z whatever advantage that might have given you in days gone by has been rendered null by the internet. The value of traits like wisdom and experience has decreased as these resources have become less scarce — there is always someone dolling out free advice and “sage wisdom” on YouTube. In the mind of Generation Z, respect is not granted because of experience, it is earned through relationship. Using the logic above, it’s not hard to see why. Relationships, people who really care about you and know you, are a scarce resource today.
So what is a manager to do? In my newest book, Ready for Real Life, I recommend leaders earn for themselves “A.L.E.G.” to stand on. What does this mean? If you want to earn the right to offer advice to a member of Generation Z, simply follow this four-step framework:
- Ask — Using “I noticed” language, ask them their perspective on a topic you’d like to talk about. (E.g. “I noticed you’ve shown up late to work recently. That doesn’t really sound like you. What is going on?”)
- Listen — Genuinely listen to their answers and try to understand their perspective. Why do they think the way they do about this topic?
- Empathize — Respond first by showing them you listened well and are trying to understand their perspective. If they are struggling with something, empathize with the challenge they are facing.
- Guide — Once you have earned the right to offer advice by taking the three steps above ask: “I’ve been in a situation like this before. Would it be alright if I shared with you some advice?”
This method is built on a simple idea. When it comes to Generation Z: relationships lead to results.
Mistake #2: Thinking equity and inclusion are about HR policies and press releases.
If you’ve been following the data on Generation Z, you’ll know that they are the most diverse generation in U.S. history. Generation Z is growing up in a world with more backgrounds, perspectives, colors, and interests than any previous generation. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, many companies across the U.S. made adjustments to their policies and procedures. Diversity departments were created. Press releases were issued. But Generation Z was not impressed. An increasingly diverse population cannot be handled like a PR crisis. Instead, the shift in perspectives of an entire generation must be met with a strategy of inclusion.
A few years ago, I learned from an amazing black leader about the true application of DEI. No doubt you’ve heard this term before. DEI stands for:
- Diversity — This is about the people and perspectives in the room.
- Equity — This is about the opportunities your people have had or not had.
- Inclusion — This is about whether everyone in the room feels safe to share what they really think.
What this wise consultant shared with me was that, when applying these ideas, most organizations execute them in the wrong order. The normal strategy is, “Let’s hire a more diverse person (diversity), then give them opportunities to grow (equity), then move them into a leadership position (inclusion)." This guy’s rule was simple: “I” Before “E” Before “D.” Don’t start by hiring different people, first, take a look at who you already have and include them in the conversation. Gather your minority team members together and ask them: “We want a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace. What do you think we should do to help us get there?” The next step is easy. Shut up and listen.
Mistake #3: Confusing poor social and emotional skills for deliberate choices.
For about the last 20 years, soft skills in the emerging workforce have been on the decline. Young employees often arrive at the workplace equipped with knowledge from their education but are without critical leadership and soft skills. Missing skills like emotional intelligence, teamwork, responsibility, motivation, and focus are becoming such an issue that leaders of organizations around the world are beginning to see developing missing skills as a top priority for the future. In a 2021 survey of global leaders in management, 84% of Chief Human resource officers said that the need to “upskill employees” has become a critical issue.
For the average manager, however, these missing skills are more likely to cause frustration than curiosity. This is because managers can easily mistake missing social and emotional skills for deliberate or even aggressive choices. I’ve heard of managers who report frustration after a young employee keeps showing up to work late, leaves without notifying anyone because they “don’t feel up to working today,” or even bring their parents in for mediation when they have a disagreement with their boss. While frustration is certainly a fair emotion in situations like these, managers should be careful to investigate the cause of these gaps in decision-making. Sometimes, young employees simply don’t know what is expected in the workplace, and their lack of emotional intelligence is prohibitive to growth — leaving them unable to fill in the gaps in their experience.
So, how do you address this? Workplaces around the world are already creating soft skill and leadership skill development programs for their youngest employees. Many are even making it a part of the onboarding process for emerging talent. In the same way, we instruct new employees on the hard skills required to be successful each day, we will need to help them with their soft skills too. As you create a program for social and emotional development, remember to address all five of the core soft skills:
- Responsible Decision-Making
- Relationship Management
- Social Awareness
If this is a new topic for you, and you are looking for an introduction to the five core soft skills — as well as simple practices you can use to build these soft skills in the young people around you — I’d like to recommend my new book!
I believe today's emerging leaders need managers who understand that being "ready" is about so much more than just knowing how to do your job. "Ready for Real Life" explores the five soft skills all young leaders need, and offers practical advice on how to build these skills in your team. Pick up a copy today by clicking the link below.