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October 22, 2021

6 Things You Need to Know to Lead Gen Z

Remember the 2000’s, where every article you read and news channel you watched were talking about Millennials as if they were aliens from outer space here to play ping pong in the open office set up you spent a fortune creating while drinking beer on tap?

Well, Gen Z is now that massive, rapidly encroaching generation expected to shake up the workplace and push us, yet again, to challenge comfortable standards. They are already the largest living generation in the U.S. and expected to be close to a quarter of the U.S. Workforce by 2025.

US Population by Age and Generation in 2020

Leaders, are you prepared to lead this new generation of socially driven, global-minded, digital natives…in less than four years!?

If not, don’t worry, I’ve got you. Here are a few things you’ll need to know as you prepare.

Preparing to lead Gen Z? Here are some things you’ll need to know.

1) Be ready to keep it H.O.T. — Honest, Open, and Transparent

Like with any generation, there is, of course, no one-size-fits-all strategy to leading Gen Z. But even when considering the variety of preferences, backgrounds, identities and more, we still see several commonalities across the generation, stemming from their collective experiences.

Gen Z’s collective experiences, like all of ours, have impacted the common beliefs, behaviors, definitions of “normal” and overall expectations we see in much of the quantitative data available today. Their expectation for honesty and transparency is one of them.

Lead Pastor Michael Todd, lead Pastor of Transformation Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says it best in one of the church’s core values — keep it “H.O.T” — Honest, Open, and Transparent. I’d suggest the same be a core value in your leadership practice with Gen Z.

Similar to their Gen X parents and older peers, Gen Zers are rather cynical, particularly in comparison to Millennials. Their overwhelming tone of skepticism, namely of power structures, is rather warranted when you consider all they’ve grown up witnessing — from seemingly daily mass shootings, to an increasing climate crisis, to streamed state-sanctioned police violence. These experiences and more have ultimately led to a distrust of leadership, systems, and power structures. It is, therefore, essential for those leading Gen Z to keep it H.O.T. with them, honest, open, and transparent, if you desire to earn and keep their trust. You must be prepared to speak candidly, back up your words with actions, and follow-through.

During the “What Gen Z Wants” series of my podcast, “The Generational View,” Mayavellie Bochas, a recent Psychology graduate and proud Gen Zer, explained how she checks for a company’s transparency. She uses an app that shows what campaigns companies have funded, which helps her gauge a company’s authentic values. If the company goes as far as to fund a cause she doesn’t agree with, she cuts it off, Bochas shared.

2) Prepare to provide mounds of feedback

In addition to honesty, openness, and transparency from leaders, Gen Z will need your feedback… and mounds of it!

If you’ve managed Millennials, then you likely know the level of feedback I’m referring to. With much of your Gen Z team members, you’ll need to start there and add a little more.

Millennials’ desire, and in some cases need, for consistent feedback stemmed from having been helicopter parented. The overwhelming oversight and assertive control from parental figures led to many Millennials’ need for feedback, which often provided confirmation, validation, and affirmation, particularly early in their career.

Gen Z, to an even further extent, is said to be growing up with lawnmower parents — parents who, instead of hovering to oversee all aspects of a child’s life, literally go before the child and mow down as many obstacles as possible to ensure the least amount of resistance for the child. This doubled-down helicopter parenting style, of sorts, is expected to lead to a similar need in many Gen Zers for the consistent, clear and actionable feedback they are used to receiving as children.

Source: Getty Images

3) Empower and model work-life integration

Unlike many of their elder peers, Gen Z doesn’t promote dedication to a work-a-holic, self-sacrificial lifestyle. Where some of their predecessors pride themselves on “grinding” on weekends and after hours, Gen Zers look for the space and support to be full human beings both at work and outside of work, even early in their careers. This includes having work-life boundaries and the prioritization of self-care and all aspects of wellness.

As you’ve probably noticed, Gen Z is leading efforts to normalize mental health conversations. In 2019, Pew Research revealed, “70% of teens across all genders, races, and family-income levels say that anxiety and depression are significant problems among their peers” — a higher rate than previous generations. Another study from Western Governors University found that only 45% of Generation Z individuals say their mental health is good or excellent. That is 11% lower than the next closest generation, Millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996.

While these stats may seem gloomy, the positive is Gen Z is aware of mental health challenges, are discussing it, and are prioritizing it in ways prior generations have not. In 2021, the Annie Cassie Foundation found that 37% of Gen Zers reported that they received help from a psychologist or other mental health expert, which is more than any previous generation.

Think about it this way — Gen Z is valuing emotional stability at levels that many preceding generations valued financial stability. Think about some of the decisions we’ve seen from elite Gen Z athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.

Work-life integration to your incoming Gen Z population will be about more than just respecting work hours. It will also be about you supporting their mental health, providing meaningful outlets for the things they are passionate about in society, and making space for them to really bring their whole selves to work.

4) Expect Accountability

It’s beneficial to leave the egos at the door. You’re not the only one who’ll be holding someone accountable in this relationship. They will be holding you accountable just as much as you will be holding them accountable. This attitude amongst Gen Z is quite backward for many workplace or scholarly atmospheres, but the reality is evident. Just consider the wave of “cancel culture,” that some simply call accountability culture.

cancel culture (noun) : the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure

Part of the reasoning behind the accountability you can expect from Gen Z is rooted in the distrust of power structures and those in authority I alluded to previously, fueled by misinformation and social media. Their doubt over the sincerity or genuine intentions of those in power has created a watchdog mentality, of sorts. As a person of authority in their lives, expect to be fact-checked and met with skepticism until proven right, through action.

Additionally, general societal issues like politics and gun violence heavily dictate the level of responsibility Gen Z puts on leaders. This generation feels more stressed about these issues than other generations. According to Pew, “They are also more likely to have direct mental and physical health problems as a result of these stressful situations.”

For this reason, they place accountability at the feet of their leaders to fix these things. They seek out those who engage in actions amidst controversial societal issues and who genuinely care about the harm being done to others. Generation Z will hold you accountable for what you (and the company) do and say in such situations.

5) Develop as an inclusive leader

Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation the U.S. has ever seen according to the Pew Research Center.

Additionally, the generation holds higher levels of gender diversity normalities, with at least ⅓ of the population who say they know someone who prefers to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns.

With this level of diversity, Gen Z is going to expect you to be ridding yourself of the non-inclusive behaviors that produce misogyny, toxic masculinity, “gaycism,” racism, ableism, and all of the other isms many of our workplaces, historically accepted as “normal.” You will often experience somewhat of a zero-tolerance policy for exclusion from these young professionals.

As a leader outside of Gen Z, you may not understand the intricacies of difference, the correct language to use, or even the rationale behind things like equity. But Gen Z revealed they’re ready to teach! This is where the H.O.T tips we talked about previously will show their significance. Putting yourself in the learner’s seat to Gen Z first requires you (and I) to, yet again, set the egos aside, admit our knowledge gaps, and be open to following their lead.

To develop the inclusive leadership skills Gen Z will be looking for in its leaders, I strongly suggest participating in inclusive leadership training. (We provide inclusive leadership training at RSE, so if you’d like to discuss bringing it to your organization, contact us.)

6) Expect to pay

While Gen Z is socially conscious, morally passionate and ethically driven, be ye not confused, they are about what they’ve affectionately dubbed “the bag,” i.e. the money bag. Zers are actually concerned about financial freedom at a much younger age than Millennials, especially during the pandemic, according to Urban Institute.

While Millennials were known for “investing” in extravagant experiences, Gen Z seems to be far more concerned with financial security, surviving an anticipated recession, and not being like their older Millennial siblings and cousins living with parents post-graduation.

As we already discussed, Zers’ drive to rid emotional stressors from their lives not only includes societal pressures, but issues related to finances as well. In fact, Deloitte revealed finances to be one of the top stress drivers for Gen Z.

In short, the shiny benefits that once attracted early Millennial talent will not be the same to attract early Gen Z talent. Leaders should expect an early investment in strong Gen Z candidates for their teams and expect to be met with the confidence to ask.

Things to Remember

Perspectives, opinions and desires often change. So, when analyzing the incoming professional generation, could any of what I’ve shared change? Absolutely it could, and it likely will! If you think about the Millennial generation, the expectations, norms and desires you encountered in the early 2000’s with the oldest Millennials entering the workforce were likely different from those you encountered in the mid 2010’s with the youngest Millennials. I suspect the same will be the case for Gen Z.

Also, as the future unfolds and we work our way through a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, we are prone to see many characteristics of Gen Z evolve, as a result.

We also must remember that a sample of a population as large as Gen Z doesn’t automatically speak for the Gen Z employee that you may encounter in your workplace. While the research is helpful in understanding possibilities, the data I’ve shared certainly does not describe or speak to every individual voice.

When referring to Gen Z, we must, therefore, first acknowledge that each Zer is an individual human being with unique experiences, identities, and thoughts. As with anyone, you will have to lead each person with situational nuance. I do believe, however, that the context I’ve shared will help you begin to effectively lead the future of our workforce and society — Gen Z.

To hear directly from the mouths of Gen Zers their expectations of the workplace, society and leadership, check out my What Gen Z Wants series on my podcast — The Generational View — wherever you get your podcasts.

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Raven Solomon

Raven is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Speaker, Author, & Strategist who helps organizations understand generations, racial equity, and their intersection.

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