A good friend asked me recently, “What’s the single most debilitating thing facing the generation entering the workforce?” My fast answer: critical thinking. With managing emotions a close second.
I’m not a generations researcher by career focus. I wound up studying this in response to a growing number of befuddled clients – and apparently most CEOs in Davos last month, asking “Who is this new generation and how do I manage them? Help!”
Here’s what’s happening and how managers must respond – and quickly.
Aren’t These Just Millennials, Part Two?
In some ways, yes. Like Millennials, Generation Z – generally agreed to have been born between 1995 and 2012 – has been raised under overprotective parenting fueled by inaccurate beliefs that children are in great danger most of the time and thus must be protected.
This has led to what some social psychologists have dubbed a culture of safetyism, the result of which is a large percentage of teens and young adults who are opting out of taking steps towards independence such as obtaining a driver’s license, dating, holding a high school or college job, or making school or career decisions without tight parental oversight.
These findings are based primarily on four databases from national comparative surveys that go back to the 1970s and constitute 11 million respondents in total and a representative demographic sampling. So, we can see with great accuracy what’s different from one generation to the next.
The New College Culture, Social Media, and a Pandemic
The last eight to 10 years have seen college administrators buckle in the face of a growing body of vocal students who have equated emotional discomfort with physical violence and “abuse” – disrespectful to actual trauma survivors – by sanctioning or firing professors and putting a range of policies in place to support their “safety-first” goals. This is particularly ironic given that colleges’ raison d’être is to facilitate diverse points of view.
Much has been written about the highly concerning effects of social media on youth and its connection to increased rates of anxiety and depressive disorders. The data sets are still building in explanatory power, but what we do know is that teens report worse mental health outcomes the more time they spend on social media and that this has led to unprecedented high demands for counseling.
Finally, a pandemic took place at key developmental years for Generation Z. Teens coming into their college years reported more isolation and fewer interpersonal experiences than ever and became accustomed to engaging with others and new ideas from behind computer screens instead of on campuses and in face-to-face interactions.
This perfect storm of contributing factors has brought maturationally-delayed and risk-averse young adults to the workplace doorstep against a backdrop of record high education debt.
It should be noted that this cohort brings the potential of a host of strengths to workplaces. They seem to have a more realistic expectation of job fulfillment compared to Millennials, a stronger interest in societal and environmental issues than any generation demonstrated at their age (though perhaps more “sedentary activism” thus far), and they expect workplaces to embrace diversity in many ways such as gender expression and neurodiversity.
As one leader put it, “It’s the purpose-driven nature that’s different from the Millennials. They have immature notions of what that means in an organization, but they really are different in how much energy they have for it.”
How Should Managers Respond?
Gen Z will show up to the workplace with high anxiety, a somewhat stronger work ethic driven by greater financial pressures than Millennials had to contend with, and in need of what I am calling “extended parenting.” If that sounds like you’re unprepared, you’re right.
Here are the 6 skills to start practicing right away:
1. Teach Tools to Manage Emotions
Perhaps the most notable change that leaders will see, and that they have reported to me in interviews, is a new requirement to help their young workers manage their emotions — frequently, and in many contexts.
To be clear, this generation is not less capable of managing feelings than others. Rather, they are delayed in building tolerance and nascent management tools to process uncomfortable ones.
You will need to help your Gen Z learn when and how to appropriately recognize, internally process, and then make choices in response to their feelings. You’ll also need to help them learn what a healthy coping mechanism is and when and how to practice healthy ones when emotions start to hijack thinking.
2. Help Gen Z Understand What Being “Authentic” Really Means
This cohort has been raised with an assurance that feelings should always be trusted and even eclipse other types of information, and that being authentic – a guiding goal for many young people – means that the workplace should embrace most manifestations of self-expression under the heading of “inclusive culture goals.”
While pushing organizations to not hide behind corporate-speak is a meaningful demand, being authentic in a mature manner means paying attention to the situation you’re in and responding accordingly. Help your Gen Z-ers by showing them how to pull forward some character traits and how to set aside others as context requires. This is mature and adaptive.
As one Gen X leader put it, “They may not be self-aware yet, but they know they need to be. This is what makes them really different from my Millennials.”
3. First Give Clear Direction, Then Lean into Ambiguity
Compared to other cohorts at their age, this generation has had scant opportunity to make independent analysis with disparate information. They’ll need your patience and regular working sessions to develop critical and bigger picture thinking skills.
Start with a diet of clear and specific direction. Then give recognition when your Gen Z-ers start to integrate data analytically and float hypotheses without having all the information. As you well know, there are few “right answers” in the workplace, but this is likely unfamiliar territory to your Gen Zs.
4. Give Attention but Limit Feedback
Gen Z may be asking for a lot of “feedback,” but it’s actually attention that they really seek. A life spent seeking “likes” inside the immediate feedback fishbowl of social media creates a worker who will continue to seek this type of recognition.
Interestingly, the data also tells us that Gen Z seeks a bit less praise compared to Millennials. Your strategy then is to recognize their contributions and skill growth but tread lightly with how you deliver hard-to-hear feedback until it seems that a cushion of psychological safety has been put in place.
5. Role Play Hard Conversations
This cohort has significantly less face-to-face interpersonal experience than generations prior and conflicts have often been managed by “de-friending” on social media. This tendency first showed itself to me when I spent time counseling college students in 2010. By now, it’s become well-ingrained.
Don’t be surprised if a Gen Z-er elects to quit (or make a formal complaint to HR) instead of having a real-time discussion around a conflictual issue or one that holds an emotional charge for them. But you can lessen the chances of this by offering to role-play difficult conversations and praising them after they have them.
6. Don’t Reward Progress with Title Inflation
Some experts on Gen Z have suggested that allowing this cohort to create their own job titles and delivering them a series of small “promotions” even if only in title are effective means to reward and engage.
Don’t do it.
False “blue ribbon” title inflation will backfire in the end, sets a bad precedent, is already engendering well-deserved resentment on the part of older generations, and will spawn a host of unintended consequences that you won’t want to unravel and repair. Stick with encouragement and empathic but increasingly direct honesty.
Gen Z brings a special set of gifts to the work world. But they are also struggling more than any cohort prior, demanding that managers “extend parenting” to help them succeed.
Time to get ready – and fast.
About the Author
Kelly Kinnebrew, PhD is a clinical and organizational psychologist who specializes in executive career and senior team development, human capital applied research design and implementation, talent strategy consulting to teams undergoing big change (M&A, expansion, strategy changes), and culture work within and across country borders. She is also a researcher, writer, and speaker on gender issues at work, complex teaming and strategy, performance management that works, managing the dramatic rise in narcissistic leaders, and managing Generation Z.
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