In the months and years since Gen Z entered the workforce, I’ve heard a lot of talk and opinions about these new team members. Occasionally, people marvel at these bright, influential young people. More often, though, the conversation is negative –– portraying Gen Zers as lazy, entitled and difficult to please or manage.
These misconceptions are far from the truth and damage our organizational goals and leadership ability. They keep us from cultivating exciting and welcoming places to work.
Gen Z fact or Gen Z fiction?
I see many hiring leaders stuck in a familiar loop: They recognize the pressure to change and the need for more flexible working arrangements, but they’re still deeply attached to the modes of working they grew up with. These leaders have progressed through their careers with a love-hate relationship with the nine-to-five. They understand what it feels like to be constrained, to work according to a set schedule rather than according to their productivity or results.
In contrast, people entering the professional world today have more choices. These options mean the newest working generation is uncomfortable within narrow boundaries; they have different expectations about how work should be, and these expectations require a different approach to management. Instead of looking, listening and navigating this new managing approach, however, leaders often close off.
The problem is that the business world doesn’t have the luxury of misreading Generation Z for long. Young people are cashing in their choice chips; they don’t have to stay put at a company that doesn’t understand them and refuses to learn. Leaders are already frustrated by the revolving door of talent they see happening in their teams –– reaching out to Gen Z might be the way to keep that door closed.
These disconnects and misconceptions can go unchallenged and create assumptions about what Gen Z needs in the workplace. You might assume they want Instagrammable workspaces, compelling perks and endless time off, when instead you could just listening to young people’s needs and perspectives.
How to lead a multigenerational team successfully
Assumptions and expectations run deep. As employees and leaders begin to recognize one another, it’s vital that they keep working to shed misconceptions and share honestly and unguardedly. Here’s how to start:
1. Throw assumptions out the window
Start with an expectations exchange. Leaders should take regular and quality time to check in with Gen Z employees and ask them what they might need, observe or worry about. Don’t assume they want a fully flexible work week; they may be OK with daily structure but prefer to go home once they’ve completed a task rather than waiting for the next to arrive. Because it’s an exchange, you can understand what motivates them from a work perspective — their expectations of you as the leader and sharing your expectations of them.
Whatever it is, lead with listening. Where you can, align young professionals’ strengths and goals with their roles rather than trying to mold them to your expectations for what work should be like. Management isn’t one-size-fits-all and should be individualized to get the best out of your people.
2. Blow up your expectations
We all have ideas about how people should show up at work, in meetings or during one-on-one interactions. This box for how we expect people to show up must be more extensive and accurate. We learned that in our own small, remote team. We have regular team meetings where various generations collaborate and share news. One young team member tends to sit on the floor; she spreads her stuff out and takes notes on her laptop. To more traditional thinkers, she may seem disengaged, but she’s not. She’s always prepared and knows what’s going on in the meeting, and her contributions reflect that.
While a more seasoned professional may be sitting up straight at the desk and making eye contact with the meeting leader, they’re not necessarily working harder than the young person on the floor. The expectation to work a certain way isn’t what will make a team member the most productive. Judge what matters — not the process to get there.
3. Free yourself to think of alternatives
Once you clear out the cobwebs of assumptions and expectations, you can enjoy trying new working modes. What appeals to you? How could you improve your business by outsourcing to contingent workers, for example? How could you empower your team by hiring alternative kinds of co-workers, from freelancers and gig workers to part-timers and job-sharers? A flexible workforce gives you more freedom to explore.
As a business, we’ve challenged the typical ways of working. We have a small team with diverse wants and needs. We’ve got a baby boomer who wants to continue to contribute but not have to do it full-time. We’ve got a millennial who is the mother of a young child; when he was an infant, it was vital for her to spend more time with him, and now that he is older, she is open to more opportunities. We have another team member who prefers to work close to home versus traveling. These are outstanding individuals whose contributions are incredibly valuable — why wouldn’t we embrace the win-win of meeting them where they’re at in exchange for their talents?
4. Celebrate the difference you made
Ironically, many of Gen Z’s disruptive traits exist because of how their parents raised them. These are young people brought up by generations who wanted more freedom for their children and who wanted them to thrive under fewer restrictions and hierarchies. Should we blame them when they do as we hoped and live freely? When they change the “rules” to suit themselves?
Throwing out the traditional rulebook might seem daunting, risky or even ill-advised –– but you’d be wise to see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Change is a crucial catalyst today for engagement, passion and new connections with your younger staff members. By sticking to old ways just because “that’s how it’s always been done,” you miss out on new ideas and new opportunities that today’s workforce has in store.
Accepting and celebrating Gen Z for the exciting, resilient game-changers they are means opening up the possibility for change yourself. Young people have a lot to give the business world, and we can learn a lot from their unique perspective, drive and ability to adapt. If they can do it, so can you.
Gloria St. Martin-Lowry is the president of HPWP Group, a company that promotes leadership and organizational development through positivity, coaching and problem-solving. HPWP seeks to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.